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Transportation service constant amidst rightsizing

Girl exiting busIf there's one thing rightsizing won't change about the San Antonio Independent School District, it's the diligence and dedication of the Transportation Department.


At recent neighborhood meetings, many families and community members have expressed concerns about transportation for students if the Board of Trustees votes to close and merge some campuses in November. They are worried about longer bus rides, changes to bus stops and routes, and different bus drivers and monitors who are unfamiliar with their students.


But Nathan Graf, senior executive director of the Transportation Department, said students and their families can count on the department to get them to school safely, regardless of how the board votes on the district’s rightsizing recommendation.


Every summer, the Transportation Department reevaluates bus routes to make sure they’re as efficient as possible, completing test runs before the first day of school to see if any changes need to be made, Graf said. That won’t change after the November board vote.


“That way we have no surprises on that first day of school,” he said.


Throughout the year, the department alters routes if drivers and monitors need to make adjustments or if principals request to add a stop. Graf said bus drivers and monitors know the roads best and work with the routing team to create the most efficient routes possible.


“Anytime that we can add a stop where we’re going to increase our ridership and get our kids to school, we’re going to do that,” he said.


In 2017, when Graf stepped into his current role, SAISD transported about 6,500 students via 181 routes. This year, the district transports more than 8,200 students via 123 routes, despite a drop in enrollment. Graf said the district can transport more students on fewer routes because the routes are more efficient.


SAISD’s fleet of buses offers a variety of safety features that ease the minds of parents.  SAISD is the only school district in Bexar County to have multiple internal and external cameras on every bus that offers real-time viewing, student WiFi, and a parent bus app, Stopfinder, that tracks the location and arrival of the school bus. Additionally, every school bus has seatbelts and air-conditioning, and SAISD is the first school district in Bexar County to add an auto-braking feature to every new school bus purchase.


Bus monitors also help ensure student safety on buses. Katelyn Saenz, director of operations for transportation, said the district’s 90 monitors mostly cover routes for elementary schools and students who receive special education services. Drivers and monitors who serve special education students meet with the families so they can introduce themselves. That way students can get familiar with their drivers, monitors and their buses.


SAISD is one of the few districts that does not have a bus driver shortage, thanks to its year-round recruiting efforts and in-house talent partner, Tracy Garcia. Graf said most districts only recruit in the spring and summer, which leaves little time before the school year starts for drivers to go through a thorough application process and background check. They may also need time to get their commercial driver’s license. Garcia leads a team of bus driver recruiters who make community visits on a weekly basis, bringing new bus applicants to SAISD. SAISD Transportation offers paid CDL training along with sign-on financial incentives.  


Under Graf’s leadership, the Transportation Department has devised innovative ways to recruit drivers, such as advertising on vehicles and T-shirts. The department also works with students to produce safety videos that simultaneously function as recruiting videos. The goal is to have at least 10% more drivers than the district’s route count. Currently, SAISD has 130 drivers for its 123 routes.


Those drivers complete about 30 hours of safety training every year, from first aid to CPR to crisis prevention. They also receive training on how to drive defensively and how to avoid common driving mistakes. The department uses camera footage from the buses to help with that training, which occurs monthly. This training helps ensure drivers are fully qualified and up-to-date on the latest rules, regulations and safety standards.


The department employs its own safety trainers, who go out to evaluate any safety concerns the district receives. If they determine it is a valid concern, the trainers will work with the routing team and drivers to resolve the issue, Graf said. Common concerns include railroad tracks and highways.


“If we have a situation where there’s a railroad track, we would either reroute that bus around the track, or we would create stops so those kids would get on the bus and wouldn’t have to cross a railroad track or freeway,” he said.


SAISD bus drivers cumulatively transport 1.8 million student riders over 2.7 million miles in any given year. If you are interested in joining the team, you can apply online here.


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