Q&A with Minocqua J1 School District
The Minocqua J1 School District serves the communities of Minocqua, Lake Tomahawk and Hazelhurst in the Northern Wisconsin’s Lake Country. Tourism is the major source of revenue for the local economy; the area’s year-round population of 9,000 quadruples in the summertime. More than 600 Pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade students are bused across a 300 square-mile area to three schools, which are housed in the same building. The district is one of four elementary districts that feed into Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua and they share a student transportation contract.
We are a unique school district in that we serve a large rural recreation area of lake homes, which means some of our school bus routes are as long as an hour. Student safety, in all kinds of weather, is a top priority.
Our local service provider, Lakeland Area Bus Service, became part of the Dairyland Group in 1993. Dairyland became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Student Transportation of America (STA) in 2011. When the new management took over, the first thing I noticed was how much more proactive they were in communicating with our district. They made it clear that they would retain as many of our existing drivers and staff as possible and they made good on that promise.
The Dairyland team made the transition easy by retaining many of the existing local employees and not trying to recreate everything. I am the longest tenured district administrator in this area so I have known these folks for many years. Dairyland wants to address issues before they become problems so from the very start there were more phone calls and much more face-to-face communication. Dairyland’s management, at all levels, became more personally involved.
I have a very good relationship with the local Dairyland team. My job is different than many school district Superintendents. Because we are small, I wear many hats, including bus duty in the morning and in the afternoons. I greet the drivers and get to know them. It’s very important that we are on the same page in the way that we interact with students.
What I value most is the relationships we’ve developed. The working relationship we have with the current management team is very good, as is the fact that they have kept on local people who we know and trust. Our children’s safety is the number one priority up here in the Northwoods and the Dairyland team shares that goal. Riding each of the school bus routes myself has given me a better perspective of the challenges bus drivers face on certain side roads in the wintertime. The hardest decision I have to make is whether or not to cancel school when winter weather hits and our local terminal manager understands that. For many of my kids, school is the safest place to be between 8:00am and 3:00pm. When school is cancelled they miss meals and much-needed supervision. The terminal manager and I communicate well and act as a team because closing school for the day has a big impact on families that have to scramble to make other arrangements.
Because we cover such a large rural area, we want to
make sure we are doing it as efficiently as possible. No Superintendent wants a bus to pull up with only six kids
on it. But we have some major highways running through our area that we don’t want kids to cross. Dairyland’s computerized routing systems have helped us run as efficiently as possible.
Our mission statement highlights teamwork, collaboration and open communication. We have a very strong partnership with Dairyland that is built on very open and transparent communication. They are very proactive in keeping buses well-maintained and we work together throughout the school year on evacuation drills and other ways to keep our kids safe.
The safety of our children is paramount – not only in the winter but all year long. Knowing that the Dairyland team shares that goal and is proactive about safety gives me peace of mind. We don’t want an accident to happen here.
The members of this Dairyland transportation team are just good people. Driving a bus is a very thankless job. We have 14 drivers and some understand kids better than others. I have been very pleased with the way the management team works with drivers to make them the best they can be.
I have been very happy with Dairyland and would recommend them to other school administrators. I like the fact that the people I work with day-to-day are local – they live and work here and have skin in the game. That’s a big plus.