Moonshot Mindset

The NAPT Collaborative was built for one overarching purpose: To take a pragmatic, proactive and data-driven approach to identifying and solving the difficulties that face school transportation leaders across the country.

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.”