Signing off from the greatest leadership experience I have ever had

On March 1, my younger son graduated from Cub Scouts. That was also when I ended my five-year, eight-day term as Cubmaster of Pack 862.

Below is my sign-off email to the pack’s leaders, one week later. I wrote it both for my own catharsis, to celebrate what the pack has accomplished, and support the pack and its leadership.

Man, this is hard.

The email:

Leaders,

Thank you for a great ten years with Pack 862!

I joined the pack in June 2010, when my older son aged in as a Tiger (that was before the Lion program was introduced). This is a promo photo I used in the letter to Alec’s friends’ parents:

I was Den Leader of the prior Den 3 for five years. It was a great run! The parents were so supportive!

This is from our last meeting, in February 2015:

I tell new den leaders that the hardest meeting they will ever have is their last meeting. You can’t tell, but I was crying like a baby right before that photo was taken!

How could it get any better? Hold my beer…

I went on to become Pack 862’s Cubmaster two weeks later (Feb. 22, 2015), about three months before Ethan became age-eligible for Cub Scouts.

We got off to a rough start, where the spring family campout had to be canceled due to weather concerns (in retrospect, that may have been a mistake!), we weren’t able to break past a 20% membership decline (versus when I joined), and our popcorn fundraiser’s sales tanked.

But things turned around, and man, what a great ride it has been. Thanks to the incredible support of YOU, the leaders, and the parents, in the past five years, Pack 862 has:

  • Grown 82%, from an already large pack, to become the largest pack in the 24 county region!
  • Became the primary Cub Scout pack for two new schools (Reilly and Reinhardt) and is also the home for kids from many other schools.
  • Grown the pack committee to become a model committee. If BSA wanted to produce a “how to” video for Cub Scout packs, all they have to do is put cameras in this pack’s committee meetings!
  • Opened the program to girls.
  • Created a culture of continual improvement and of welcoming feedback.
  • Increased popcorn sales by 213%.
  • Set a new record for pinewood derby entries.
  • …and much more!

It was such a privilege to be a part of this. I have never, ever experienced an organization so mission-focused and united as this pack.

When prepping for large pack activities, I felt deep burnout several times. Despite that, I always was back in my happy place when the event was happening and, when it was done, I was eagerly anticipating the next event.

Now it’s all done. It is so hard to leave that behind.

This may make me sound sheltered, but leaving Pack 862 is emotionally the most difficult thing I have ever experienced. I dreaded this for two years. When I broke down at one of the summer 2019 committee meetings, you were seeing that raw emotion surface. I somehow held it together during the Blue and Gold Banquet (except during the slide show, but you probably didn’t see that). Plus I’ve had waves of emotion ever since then. It’s hard!

But the change needs to happen. I really meant what I said at the banquet, that Cubmasters are like underwear, so they need to be changed occasionally. The longer I was Cubmaster, I could see the pack’s identity getting entangled with my identity. I’ve seen cases where other packs flopped due to them getting overly identified with a leader who moved on. Even at Winter Camp this year (that program is for older, Scouts BSA members), someone that I don’t even know mentioned Pack 862 as that huge pack (good!) that is Aren Cambre’s pack (bad!). On top of that, given that Ethan graduated to the next program, it was time to move on.

Now above, you see me writing a lot about the pack as an entity. You may remember me emphasizing that the den leaders are the most important position in the pack. And that exposes a conflict: I regret not investing enough time in you, the den leaders, and your dens. I am sorry for that. There were times when dens and den leaders needed an extra boost, and I didn’t always step up like I think I should have.

You are very lucky to have the current “key three” leaders:

Christopher Calle, the pack’s new Cubmaster, has the spirit of adventure in his core. He started Wood Badge, the highest form of local adult leader training in Scouting, just two months after joining! As a successful small business owner, he has a keen sense for how to operate an organization the size of Pack 862. He and I have been working on transition and handoff for a year. You may not have realized this, but I’ve been mostly phoning it in for a few months because Chris has been mostly running the show! Please be sure to support him in his new role! (Be sure to hassle him when he ad libs through an event error! 😁) Additionally, Christopher has shown dedication to where I didn’t do as hot: he ran a den for half a year that needed help (it wasn’t his own kid’s den!), and he is actively thinking through ways to improve den leader initial training in the fall.

Melody Stevens, Committee Chair, has organized the committee to become something I have never seen in the history of this pack. Dating before my time, the Cubmaster and Committee Chair have both shouldered far too much of the duties that the committee should be doing. That is not a great dynamic. Melody has done amazing work to turn this around. We have the best staffed committee ever, we have enthusiastic, committed committee members in key roles, and it’s working well!

Alesia Pearson, Chartered Organization Representative (COR), is our official representative to Central Lutheran Church. You don’t see her much, but let me be very clear about something: this pack is VERY lucky to have such a supportive COR and chartered organization! Alesia fully supported Pack 862’s move to include girls. Except for occasional scheduling conflicts, Central Lutheran has never said no to building use. That is a huge deal! I’ve seen other situations where Scout units struggle with chartered organizations that were disinterested or unsupportive. Pack 862 is VERY lucky to have such a supportive, community-minded organization that has its back.

Out of respect for Christopher, I need to keep some distance from the pack. Growing up in a Methodist minister’s family, I saw how it’s important to let the new leader take charge without the prior leader’s presence clouding things. I am still working with Chris and Melody behind the scenes on transition matters. I’m also sharing my crazy thoughts with them, which they are ignoring if they are smart.

Also, what I identified above are things important to me. This is your pack, so you will need to identify what is important to you! They may be different than my priorities. I can’t way to see how this pack grows and evolves with your new goals.

My own next steps in Scouting are continuing to build up Venturing Crew 863 (for ages 14-20) and support Ethan’s journey in Troop 861. I’ll still be around.

In conclusion, thanks again for a great ten years. I am not gonna Rickroll you because I do need to say goodbye. But I’m never gonna give you up: Pack 862 will always have a strong place in my heart.

You have great leadership, and I am excited to see Pack 862’s next steps!

Aren

P.S., Want some beeeeeeeanz? [Note from Aren: This is an inside joke. Ask me to serve you beans to see what this refers to.]

Dallas ISD to worsen bus service and fix no problems

I have monitored Dallas County Schools’s and DISD Student Transportation Systems’s failures to provide effective transportation services, and I was an activist in the DCS shut-down effort. I have been interviewed by the Dallas Morning News (link) and NBC 5 (link).

Regrettably, dissolving DCS has not improved bus service. DISD STS continues to provide shoddy service to students and parents.

Instead of fixing its problems, STS now wants to make things worse by regurgitating its failed hub proposal from last year. A school’s SBDM exposed this by sharing that DISD STS wants to “streamline” service. This simply means they will reduce service quality by having fewer stops. In other words, STS wants to make their poor service even worse!

It appears that DISD STS is using its on-time record to say it’s doing a good job. While an important figure, two things to understand: 1. Even if it’s on-time, DISD STS is failing in equally important areas. They are at the bottom of this post. 2. It is easy to manipulate the on-time figure. In the NBC video linked above, DCS is cited as having a 98% on-time record, but it is exposed as fudging that figure. Due to persistently poor performance, DISD STS has not earned my trust, so I want to understand more about DISD’s on-time performance before I can accept it.

Instead of making things worse, I want DISD STS to improve. This is my transportation improvement plan for STS:

  • Rational routing system, informed by data, that serves families well. Measures for success:
    • Year one goal: For the first two weeks of school, no more than one route change per week per route, then only one additional route changes for the rest of the school year. Year two goal: no more than one route change per route for the entire school year.
    • Shorter routes, with no route having more than ~20 minutes between the first and last stops (not counting the final destination).
    • Routes planned through route-planning software that has a record of success elsewhere and that has knowledgeable people running it.
    • Average distance between each family and the nearest bus stop decreases year-over-year as efficiencies are gained with other improvements. (This is the opposite of STS’s failed hub proposal.)
  • Effective communications that keeps customers (parents) informed. Measures for success:
    • Direct electronic communication with parents upon EVERY route change.
    • Direct electronic communication with parents EVERY time the bus is late.
    • Assure the bus route-status app provides timely, accurate data. (As a large customer of Tyler Technologies, DISD has significant sway. They can demand improvements. Also, some of the app’s problems are attributable to DISD’s failure to maintain accurate data in the app.)
    • Inform schools with timely, accurate information so they can still provide backup route communications.
    • Accurate bus-route information transparently communicated and kept up to date.
    • End the split between “correct route information”, which apparently only STS insiders get, and “obsolete, inaccurate, and haphazardly maintained route information”, which is the data provided to parents and call-center employees. Everyone should have access to the same, authoritative route information.
  • Effective customer (parent) help. Measures for success:
    • Issue-tracking system that creates per-incident accountability and allows parents to see status of each issue.
    • Email address that feeds into the issue-tracking system.
    • Call-center employees have access to accurate data, not simply the same obsolete, inaccurate, and haphazardly maintained data that parents can already see.
  • On-time performance. Measures for success:
    • First-day performance is on time.
    • First-day performance becomes a major part of annual performance evaluation for drivers, bus depot staff, and all DISD STS administrators. (IMPORTANT: Any DISD STS employee who is not all-in on first-day performance is not serious about his or her job. Advance prep, effective management, etc. will make for on-time performance on day 1!)
    • Buses run on time when there is a substitute driver.
    • Buses run on time when the bus has to be swapped out due to a mechanical issue.
    • Performance indicators for every route made fully public, which shows each route’s on-time performance and has ZERO manipulation of the data.
  • Buses function properly. Measures for success:
    • All buses receive a thorough review as the school year approaches, in time to address all functional problems.
    • Rate and complexity of bus mechanical problems in first two weeks of school are undifferentiated from the rest of the academic year.
    • Buses with fewer miles are assigned to the longest routes. (Reliability problems have a greater impact to longer routes.)

My expectations are informed by many examples of shoddy service:

  • Excessive route revisions. With two route revisions from last week (early November!), my child’s bus route has been revised around twelve (!) times since school started, with 8 revisions in the first two weeks alone.
  • Initial routing made little sense. The routes were bizarre and communicated via a haphazardly updated spreadsheet. (The spreadsheet itself was probably a good idea, but the haphazard updates killed confidence in that communication method.)
  • The roll-out of the bus app was ineffective. Even now (mid-November!), the app still has inaccurate and incomplete information for my child’s route. As of two weeks ago, the times were wrong and had been wrong for a long time. The route is now completely missing from the app, starting last week!
  • The first day of school, the bus was very late. It was 25+ minutes late on the most important day to perform well! It made no sense: my child’s route was largely the same as last year and had the same driver (and the driver is a great guy!).
  • In addressing numerous parent complaints, DISD STS demonstrated profound cynicism of its customers. To address many parent complaints about poor bus performance, in the second week of school, STS sent an employee to my child’s bus stop. The employee appeared to have no power to fix anything, so this was clearly a cynical move to shut up frustrated customers (parents). Had DISD STS been serious about fixing its shoddy performance, it could have done so with plenty of insights from its own data and from parent feedback.
  • Communications are haphazard and inaccurate. STS abdicates on its responsibility to inform parents of routes. It throws that responsibility over the fence to school offices. That is lazy, inappropriate, and a 20th-century model. To dig the knife deeper into school staff, STS has repeatedly provided last minute, contradictory information. Just last week, my child’s school staff had to sort out last-minute, contradictory route changes on my child’s route. DISD has all needed parent contact information and sufficient electronic communication tools, so it’s unclear why a obsolete communication system is STS’s primary method.
  • Performance is terrible when there is a substitute driver. It is routine for buses to be 20+ minutes late if a substitute driver is needed.
  • DISD STS declines to help parents effectively. On its Contact Us page, STS declines to list any email addresses or issue-tracking system. It just lists a phone number (hello, 20th century!) or a Twitter account that hasn’t been updated since school started! It wasn’t until a phone call with the transportation hotline a while back that I learned that there is a transportation@dallasisd.org email address. Without an issue-tracking system that parents can access, it’s easy for our requests to just disappear.
  • The staff at the transportation hotline is of limited usefulness. In several calls at the beginning of the semester, the best info that the hotline staff could share was usually the same obsolete, inaccurate, and haphazardly maintained information I already had access to. If we wanted accurate information, the hotline staff had to put us on hold and manually reach out to the bus barns or some other office to get it. Even worse, the information we get sometimes differs on every call: the first week of school, between two parents and three calls, we got three different versions of my child’s route!
  • Buses had broken equipment on day 1. Just within my limited pool of east Dallas parents at my child’s school, we were aware of two buses with broken A/C. Extrapolate that, and it’s likely DISD started the school year with a profound number of mechanically defective buses! Are buses not reviewed over the summer?

I insist that DISD focus on fixing its many extant problems. By improving its operations, STS can give us the performance that parents deserve and DISD taxpayers are paying for, and without service-quality reductions.

DISD’s insane bus route proposal

UPDATE (7:42 PM): Routes have already changed. Route 3093, while still long, has different schools. Other long routes have appeared.

Despite platitude-filled community meetings, a good sign of dropping a stupid idea, and vague promises, Dallas Independent School District declined to fix its long, bizarre bus routes.

For example, this is an actual bus route for 2019-2020 for Sudie Williams TAG:

Route 3093 for Sudie Williams TAG Vanguard & Academy (link to map)

Google Maps says this seven-school, 24-mile route (!) takes 1 hr 10 minutes. DISD thinks it will only be 53 or 54 minutes. Hmm, what’s DISD’s logic? Slower vehicle (bus) + pause for several minutes at each school (load/unload) = 16-17 minutes faster drive time? Just like last year, a hefty dose of magical thinking!

All the schools served by route 3093, along with DISD’s laughable stop times. Morning pickup times on left, evening dropoff times on right.

This isn’t the only one. Many routes are long and complicated.

With half of his brain tied behind his back, one of my fans created a 10% faster route simply by reorienting the stops. And by removing one stop, he made a 30% faster route.

DISD Transportation repeatedly promised to fix this. They declined to. We’re seeing more of the same.

Superintendent Hinojosa, your “drastic changes” failed to deliver. Time for more firings.

(In case DISD makes further changes, here’s my own archival copy of the “special programs” bus-routing spreadsheet that shows the state of the routes when I saw them: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/103Y2aey36uDkAszoax7x8ZKBSMYsWWknrlKVrgmucwI/edit?usp=sharing.)

Dallas’s Carmel Car Wash sucks

Dallas’s Carmel Car Wash chain sucks for three reasons.

Problem 1: Their product is bad. I have an Infiniti G37 and a Honda Odyssey. For both vehicles, Carmel’s equipment isn’t able to get a good clean. Vertical surfaces, and some other parts, get missed unless the beginning-of-line attendant remembers to manually brush-wash those parts. Often, that attendant forgets or does a poor job.

Overall, their equipment just doesn’t do a good job. Here’s the result of a Sunday (July 14, 2019) wash on my van:

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that van just needed a second run through the equipment? I admit, it was pretty dirty. That leads to…

Problem 2: They don’t stand by their product. I went back to Carmel to ask for that second run on my van. (If you’re from Carmel, it is the Mockingbird Lane location. I was there on 7/16/19 around 5:30 PM and went to the left lane.) I presented my receipt, asked for a re-run, and was told they do not stand by their $7 wash, so I would need to pay for another $7 wash.

Problem 3: Plus-sales are out of control. Every time you do the basic, $7 wash, you’ll get hassled about gift cards or car-wash extras that Consumer Reports says are not worth it. This started a few months ago. I am tired of it!

We’re done, Carmel Car Wash. Not even #friendzone. Just done.

Adding books to Kindle Freetime accounts

If you want to add an e-book to your child’s Freetime account, it more complicated than delivering it to the device after you buy it. I cannot find any documentation, so this is how I did it:

  1. Visit www.amazon.com. Log in if you haven’t already.
  2. Hover over Accounts & Lists and select Your Content and Devices.
  3. Click Show Family Library.
  4. Place a checkmark next to all books you want to share with your child’s Freetime account.
  5. Click Add to Library.
  6. At the bottom of the Add to Library dialog, select the child you want to have the books.
  7. Press OK.

After that, you then need to pick up your kid’s device and exit Freetime. Restart Freetime, and when you do so, you’ll check the box for the book you just purchased.