The First 100 Days. It’s become a standard measure of progress for any new leader of an organization, and for Charmane White, the school division’s Director of Transportation, it’s no different. She recently completed her first 120 days leading a department of more than 200 employees with an annual budget that approaches $15 million.
Approximately 7,000 students rely on the division’s school buses to get to and from school every day and to travel for athletic programs and other extracurricular activities. The division’s 160 bus drivers travel more than 14,000 miles daily to complete 550 different bus routes across the county’s more than 700 square miles.
In addition to these services, the department includes transportation planning and analysis, training, administering the fuel program for all local government and school division vehicles, and vehicle maintenance for these vehicles and for other government and private school customers.
White admits this school year has had more than its share of unexpected challenges, including bus driver shortages, schedule delays exacerbated by the pandemic, and rising fuel prices. The short- and long-term answers to these challenges, White says, will be found in a visionary approach that begins with the basics: people.
“We are fortunate to have such a talented and dedicated staff whose primary reason for being in the department is to serve children,” White said. “Each member of our team, including our drivers, mechanics, analysts, every member of our team is closest to the answers on how best to do that,” she added.
One of her first actions as the new department director was to establish a Transportation Roundtable, consisting of nearly two dozen employees who are meeting with her on a monthly basis to bring forth issues and solve problems. One of the first ideas to spring from the group was a highly targeted and ongoing recruitment campaign for new drivers.
“The key,” White said, “is to do more than simply advertise that we are looking for drivers. We are being very active in visiting communities throughout our county to talk about our training programs, recent and future pay increases, and the personal fulfillment that comes from supporting children and their education.”
She also has established a position on her senior staff that will be devoted on a full-time basis to the professional development of Transportation staff. “Our focus will be leadership training. We want our entire team to model equity and inclusiveness and for everyone to have access to the highest levels of opportunity to improve their skills and their career with us,” White explained.
One area in particular that appeals to White is the importance of equipping drivers with student management techniques that are akin to those used by teachers in such programs as Responsive Classroom. “After all, we are part of the school community and we should be utilizing the same practices that teachers use to build trust and strong relationships with students,” she said.
Another key area targeted for improvement is the department’s communications with families. The driver shortage has led to as many as 25 messages a day from the department, notifying families of pick-up delays that affect their children. White knows these delays complicate not only school schedules, but those of families.
“We are constantly working on how to manage our fleet through these shortages, how we can alter routes to improve efficiencies, and how we can continue to improve the consistency and timeliness of our communications with families. One of my assistant directors has taken this on as their primary responsibility,” she said.
Looking not too far into the future, White is developing new ideas and options that will enhance the quality of service the department offers families and children. These include increased use of passenger vans that do not require a commercial driver’s license to operate and adding Type A school buses to the fleet. These buses are smaller than a traditional school bus and also may not require a commercial license. The department already has purchased the first two of these buses.
White also has been talking with her counterparts in other transportation organizations, such as Jaunt, exploring the possibility of using these services in selected areas of the county to transport high school students. The goal is to protect the integrity of bus schedules even in the event of driver shortages. It also will free up buses on these high school routes for redeployment in other areas. Then, there’s the delivery, expected soon, of as many as six electric buses, for smaller, high-volume routes in areas such as the urban ring around Charlottesville.
“Our team is proud, despite the impact of the pandemic, that our safety record remains one of the best in the state,” White said. “That says a great deal about our training program and our culture. We are looking forward in future years to building on our safety record through such improvements as new stop arm safety cameras to reduce incidences of vehicles passing stopped school buses,” she said.
Prior to becoming the department’s director, White was instrumental in developing the department’s Safe Driving Award Program; its Remote Learning Program that enables drivers seeking their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) to become certified at the department’s location rather than having to go to a Department of Motor Vehicles location; and its Responsive Language Program. She serves on the Executive Board of the Virginia Association of Pupil Transportation (VAPT), chairing its Region Five Committee.
While the first 100 days has been a time for gathering information and setting high performance goals, the next 100 days, White points out, will be a time for making significant progress towards meeting these goals. “It’s a time for accountability on improving our partnerships with families, students and employees,” she insists.
Pictured: Charmane White
CONTACT: Phil Giaramita, Strategic Communications Officer