Mike Martin’s next chapter with NAPT

Ask Mike Martin who has influenced his leadership style and career and he is sure to share a story about the director of the New York State Association of Counties (NYSAC), where Martin began his professional career.

“Ed Crawford was a classic, old-school politician — there wasn’t a place we went where people didn’t know him,” Martin said. “And he introduced me to everybody — US Presidents, state Governors, members of Congress, business leaders. You name it.”

“I mean, I was a kid, like 23 or 24 years old, and he would walk me right up to the Governor and say, ‘Mario, this is Mike.’ Talk to him for a few minutes”. Then he’d walk away, go talk to someone else, and leave me there. Can you imagine that? It was an education like no other. I have never forgotten how generous he was with me.” 

The beginning

Some folks grow up around the transportation industry, are shaped by it, and find their place in the field. Others, like Martin, take a different path. 

“After working with NYSAC and a couple of other municipal and K-12 nonprofits, a friend and I started our own consulting and lobbying firm. One of our clients was the New York Association of Pupil Transportation,” Martin said. “The issues were interesting, and the people were even more interesting — some really unique personalities. Because of my work with them, I met a couple of the leaders at NAPT® and when they decided to hire an executive director, they called me and asked if I’d consider the job.”

Martin initially thought he would work with NAPT® for a year, help them with some organizational issues and then go back to lobbying. But then something happened — he became enamored with the work.

“I just became endlessly curious about what was possible and ways we could make an impact,” Martin said.

From the start, Martin helped the NAPT® push the envelope, developing and publishing a website in the mid-90s — before most of the industry even began to see the value of establishing a digital presence. Beyond this, a revitalized approach to the annual conference and trade show surprised and delighted the membership, creating anticipation and a sense of belonging.

“Conferences were all the same, really staid, traditional,” Martin said. “So we started offering options and changing up the environment, going outdoors for live events or adding unique elements like a calliope and a circus theme. We wanted it to not just be informative, but also uplifting and fun.”

Tangible progress

As the years wore on, Martin continued to lead change with boards who valued innovation and progress. Of the many projects he’s been a part of, he thinks one in particular stands out. 

“We created a professional development program with more than 40 different classes that are offered both in-person and online and can be used to acquire a certification in five different categories,” Martin said. “It helps people create a better version of themselves; to grow, learn and collaborate.”

Another project involved partnering with a national business media publisher to create the first-ever monthly magazine. As the official “voice” of NAPT®, School BUSRide provides up-to-the-minute industry news; regulatory and compliance coverage; exclusive columns by respected industry experts; trends; custom research; and editorial content by trusted senior industry thought leaders in North America.

Martin also regards NAPT®’s mission statement as a notable accomplishment: Our mission is CLEAR. It points to an acronym that stands for Communication, Leadership, Education, Advocacy and Resources. 

“We come to work every day as advocates for student safety,” Martin said. “Plus, we offer professional development that is helpful and relevant, to provide as many different resources as possible and to keep our members informed on what’s happening in the market space and the world at large.”

Over Martin’s 26 years working with volunteer board members, he calculated that he is worked with over 160 different team members.

“The number is one thing but it’s the people themselves that are most impressive”, Martin said, listing icons like Ed Donn, Don Carnahan, and Linda Bluth. “We’ve had so many great leaders.”

Martin says the Board’s consistent willingness to embrace forward-thinking, market-disrupting ideas has elevated the industry.

“If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’ve been getting, oftentimes less. Not everything we did worked, but these different attempts and initiatives made us stronger, and helped others become stronger too. We have found some great success.”

Mike Martin

He noted the entrepreneurial spirit that has been nurtured for years has been on full display during the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“We offered our first pandemic-related webinar March 17 of last year,” Martin said. “Since then we have  completed more than 100.”

Big next step

While Martin will continue to provide leadership for NAPT®, there is a new opportunity on the horizon — a partnership called NAPT® Collaborative in tandem with the Minneapolis-based Center for Effective School Operations [CESO].

“The CESO tagline is ‘Rethink Possible’ and they really do approach everything that way. Is this the best way to do this? Can we do it better?” Martin said. “The ethos of this organization is so intrinsic to me, it’s exciting to think about what we might be able to do together.’” 

One of the things Martin is excited about is the chance to take on critical, big-picture issues by collaborating with nontraditional partners, and then try to operationalize them through the CESO engine.

“It’s like, let’s see if we can get to the bottom of things that have been challenges for people forever, like the shortage of school bus drivers, for example,” Martin said. “Rethink it entirely. Collect data, do research, brainstorm, throw new ideas at a group of super smart people with a completely different frame of reference and listen to what they think. Then do it again and again until we create something new, something different, something helpful, maybe even something revolutionary.”

Moonshot Mindset

If there’s ever been a time for an organization like the NAPT Collaborative to emerge, it’s right now. Issues like the national driver shortage need more than an influx of applicants; they need comprehensive analysis to address the problem at the deepest level, then activate the tectonic shift needed to drive lasting change.

That’s the heart of the partnership between NAPT and CESO (The Center for Effective School Operations), a Minneapolis-based school district operations and logistics firm. 

“You have manufacturers and other companies that serve the school transportation system as it stands today,” said Luke Frederick, VP of Business Development for CESO. “There’s just not a capacity to reshape the landscape so that it better serves students, so we keep having the same issues. And that’s where Mike [Martin] shines — he’s always thinking years ahead as a sort of policy-driven pioneer.”

That’s why the Collaborative has gathered a board of advisors that crosses industries — there’s a deep need to think outside the box if a solution to the toughest problems is to be found. 

“Something we need to be better at is talking with people who aren’t us,” said NAPT executive director Mike Martin. “We’re really good at sharing information within the K12 education community and the transportation market space in particular, but there are strategic thinkers outside our industry who can be objective and maybe offer us solutions we never would have come up with on our own.”

In the crosshairs

The Collaborative has the driver shortage in its sights, but beyond this, there’s the issue of reducing carbon emissions and vehicle maintenance by considering how electric buses might be integrated en masse into existing school district fleets. 

“Our opportunity is to connect the dots so this kind of change is approachable and not so complicated and hazy,” Frederick said. “For widespread adoption to happen, there needs to be end-to-end assistance, from procurement and planning to the protocols for introducing this kind of vehicle to an environment that favors the traditional yellow bus.”

According to Frederick, the issue isn’t that the transportation industry is ignoring a move to electric busing, it’s that there is a great deal of confusion around standards and best practices because the current conversation isn’t comprehensive; it’s focused on features and benefits of the vehicles themselves. 

“The hope is that years from now we can become a sort of navigator on how districts can begin to flip portions of their fleets and create the right infrastructure to make it work,” Frederick said. “We want to remove barriers and remove friction so schools, vendors and policymakers can work together more effectively to serve students.” 

Solving for today, too

But what about solutions for right now? After all, kids still need to get to school every day. 

The Collaborative looks at its role as two-pronged — creating a method by which transportation directors can get help for today’s emergencies and look at root causes and trends. It starts with a national network of experts, led by Tim Ammon and Tom Platt of the Decision Support Group business consultancy.

“One thing we’re offering right out of the gates is our national consultancy,” Frederick said. “It’s a group of talented, tenured transportation professionals who can sit with directors and help alleviate the time-sensitive pain points on their plate today and then work on long-term solutions after we’re out of the woods.”

CESO President Lance Libengood, who spent nearly nine years in various district transportation leadership roles before transitioning to consultant-based work in 2014, has been working closely with the largest districts in the Twin Cities to solve driver shortage needs and overall inefficiencies. He’ll step in as Director of Operations for the NAPT Collaborative.

“When we started addressing these challenges with CESO, we were working to solve the problems that we had in our own districts,” Libengood said. “As it turns out, these problems weren’t just common to people in the metro, but across the country as well. In response, we’ve reimagined routing and found success using a collaborative, cross-district approach that leverages alternative transportation without compromising on student safety.”

Despite the size of the challenge, Martin is convinced that an inclusive approach — pulling in trusted voices from a variety of industries — is the kind of hopeful method the industry needs.

“We may not solve the driver shortage outright, but it’s the number one problem we’ve got in this market and we need to make a different run at it,” Martin said. “We have to rethink what’s been possible and take a new approach if we’re going to truly make a difference.”

Rethinking the Driver Shortage

For years, transportation directors around the country have felt the pain of the driver shortage — the logistical conundrum that forces even the savviest of routing specialists to scratch their head and wonder, how are we going to make it work this year?

Coupled with a changing educational landscape where more students than ever are enrolling in distance-learning programs and a growing population of students experiencing homelessness, the driver shortage has been amplified to the point of being a crisis in many places.

Enter the NAPT Collaborative, a partnership between NAPT and Center for Effective School Operations (CESO) that leverages national reach and political gravitas with next-level logistics and operations expertise to bring solutions to life.

Attacking the problem

Lance Libengood, President of the Minneapolis-based CESO and Director of Operations for the NAPT Collaborative, understands firsthand the problems that a driver shortage can cause. For nine years, he served in school transportation leadership before devoting his time and energy to helping solve the logistical challenges he faced every day on the district side. 

“At CESO, we have an insider perspective on what happens in school transportation departments — limited resources, inadequate solutions, outside factors. At times it can feel like we will never reach the standard that we want for our transportation program.”

Over the years, Libengood and the CESO team have worked side-by-side with the largest districts in the Twin Cities metro area to bring a refreshing new era of routing efficiency and vehicle resource management to a host of grateful districts.

“We’re excited to help school districts across the country rethink what’s possible, whether by reimagining out-of-district transportation, optimizing route-building, considering alternative transportation solutions, and beyond,” he said. “Our consultants come in with a plan to address immediate problems, like a lack of drivers, and then work with leaders to make tangible progress over time.”

Why move toward the NAPT Collaborative model? Libengood explains.

“With the NAPT Collaborative, we have a unique opportunity to replicate what’s worked in a major metropolitan setting and move toward the universal goal of getting kids to school in the safest, smartest and most sustainable ways. And we have teams in place to do it right now.”

The spark

The idea for the Collaborative came when NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin met Luke Frederick, VP of Business Development at CESO, in 2019. A shared affinity for futurism and strategic partnership set in motion a series of meetings that resulted in collaboration.

“The first time I met Luke it was like we’d known each other for years,” Martin said. “The brainstorming started immediately and it has been centered since then on finding ways to help people, solve problems, and share big ideas.”

The initiative has already attracted attention from a variety of experts in business, law, government, science, technology, health care and education, a group that Martin has turned into a Board of Strategic Advisors that will help the NAPT Collaborative identify, analyze, research, and ultimately propose solutions to some of the biggest and toughest challenges in school transportation. 

“In the last 30 years, I’ve met and worked with an amazing number of smart, curious, creative, and collaborative people from all walks of life. Now, having some of them available as a resource, thinking about our problems, looking at them through a different lens, and helping us analyze them, an incredible asset,” Martin said.

The future

The NAPT Collaborative will be initially focused on the driver shortage, especially the use of data-driven driver recruitment and retention, but everyone involved in the effort knows that other issues are on the horizon. The dearth of accessible, understandable, centralized data, especially at the national level. Changes in school transportation funding and financing. The future of vehicle design, propulsion and telematics. Legal issues, particularly those that impact the transportation of students with disabilities. The increasing use of alternatives to traditional school transportation. Even cybersecurity. 

“The transportation department is part of a school district ecosystem,” Frederick said. “When hackers get to student data, that has a direct effect on the operation, and there needs to be greater safety, plus universal protocols and plans in place to bounce back and serve students and families.”

For now, the NAPT Collaborative is content to be two things at once: a catalyst for change, grounded in research and relationships; and a nimble, solution-based consultancy — led by Tim Ammon and Tom Platt of Decision Support Group — that can help districts solve immediate needs.

“In my mind, the Collaborative will always serve two purposes: the immediate and the big-picture,” Frederick said. “When districts call, we’ll be able to offer them