Q&A with West Ada School District

The West Ada School District is located in Meridian, Idaho, one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. The district operates 55 schools serving more 39,000 students across a 382 square-mile area in the southwestern corner of the state. It is the largest school district in Idaho. Cascade Student Transportation, a member of the Student Transportation of America (STA) family of companies, is the district’s transportation provider.

What problems, issues, or needs led you to engage Cascade Student Transportation?
Prior to contracting with STA’s Cascade Student Transportation in 2014, the West Ada School District owned and operated its own fleet of more than 200 school buses. During the 2013-2014 school year, we came to the realization that, while our transportation system was good, we would benefit greatly from the expertise of contracted transportation professionals. First, full-time transportation professionals could provide the management and staffing needed to achieve greater efficiencies and free up many of our internal resources to focus on other district initiatives. Second, our area was just coming out of an economic downturn that had disrupted our vehicle replacement schedule. Our fleet was getting old and expensive to maintain. We saw contracting as a way to bring in a new, modern fleet that would save our district from having to invest capital in new equipment. Third, in order to save money during the recession, we had discontinued mid-day busing for kindergarten students and we wanted to reinstate that service. Finally, the elimination of mid-day busing was hard on parents and shortened the workday for our drivers, making our efforts to recruit and retain bus drivers harder than ever. Other district managers were pressed into service as drivers and not getting other things done. All in all, our school board saw contracting as the best solution.

What have the implementation phase and ongoing relationship been like?
One of the hardest parts of our decision to contract involved our drivers. They would no longer be school district employees. The good news is that when Cascade was selected as our contractor, they rehired just about everyone who wanted a job and paid them an hourly wage that was better than that of the school district. The transition was not smooth as silk, for sure. Change is not easy, but it was better than the system we were running and continued to improve over the first years of the initial five-year contract. As Chief Communications Officer, I’m the person who speaks to the news media when things go wrong with transportation. I have been doing this for 20 years and busing has been the number one issue raised by the media. I can honestly say that I have not been on the local news to answer for a busing issue for more than three years. Cascade’s transportation operation continues to get better every year. We are very satisfied and just renewed our district contract for another five years.

The Cascade team is very professional and supportive of our internal Transportation Liaison. We work as partners to brainstorm and implement solutions to every situation. The district and Cascade have worked together to address student behavior issues with faster follow-up and have addressed overcrowded buses by having back-up buses ready to go when needed. They are just good at running a transportation system that minimizes opportunities for mistakes. Operationally, our system has just gotten better and better in every way. They have been very creative in recruiting drivers and they offer very competitive wages that retain them. And they are very good about communicating with parents and our district staff.

What have been the greatest benefits of working with Cascade?
The benefits of working with Cascade have been two-fold – financial and operational. First are the savings that our district has realized. The new buses Cascade provided saved us $15 million in capital expenditures the first year and more than $1 million in operational savings in the first five years. Second, Cascade has put systems, policies and procedures in place that have improved the overall operation of our transportation system. They have a culture of continuous improvement that’s aimed at eliminating errors. I no longer have to explain why children were left on a bus or dropped off in the wrong place.

Can you share specifically how Cascade helped you reach your goals?
We had three big goals when we contracted with Cascade Student Transportation. We wanted to reduce our capital costs for buses, restore mid-day kindergarten transportation, and hire and retain an adequate pool of school bus drivers. Cascade has helped us achieve all three of these goals.

How is Cascade aligned with the values that drive your school district?
Our first priority is safety and Cascade has put a lot of new policies and procedures in place to keep our kids safe. For example, the most dangerous area of busing is during loading and unloading; Cascade has focused on procedures that reduce the risk of accidents as children get on and off the bus. It’s reassuring to see all the signage and messaging about safety in the transportation center. It’s definitely Cascade’s top priority as well.

How has working with Cascade made your job/work life easier?
Since Cascade has taken over our transportation system, I spend less time addressing problems and issues with school buses. Things run smoothly and that frees me up to work on the most important parts of my job.

What surprised you or pleased you most about working with Cascade?
I recently attended the contract renewal celebration at the transportation center and talked with a number of Cascade drivers and managers. I was really pleased to see how happy the employees are and how much the operation has changed since the district ran busing. These folks really know how to run a school bus system. They are just better at it than we were.

Would you recommend Cascade to others? What positive benefits would you emphasize?
Yes, I would recommend Cascade on a couple of fronts. First, I would emphasize their ability to attract and retain drivers. Driver shortage is a huge issue impacting student transportation operations across the country, so this is a very important benefit of working with Cascade. Next, I would emphasize their overall expertise. They have lots of good ideas about how to change an operation to fix many of the problems that school bus operators face. Little things like how drivers check out keys, for example. They do the little things well and the result is a smooth operation that reduces risk, runs efficiently and keeps our kids safe.