Improvement plan for DISD Student Transportation Services (busing)

Dallas ISD’s Student Transportation Services is a clown show. It acts incompetently, and it is indifferent and cynical towards parents, it customers.

It could be turned around with the right leadership, accountability, and a plan.

Here’s my plan to fix DISD STS, with grades based on performance for the first few weeks of the 2022-2023 school year:

  • 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 change, per route, for the rest of the school year. Year two goal: no more than one route change per route for the entire school year, because the starting point was rational and well considered.
    • 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, cynical hub proposal.)
  • Effective communications that keeps customers (parents) informed. Measures for success:
    • Direct electronic communication, by STS, with parents upon EVERY route change.
    • Direct electronic communication, by STS, with parents EVERY time the bus is one or more minutes 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 declining 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. They are adjusted as soon as there are new findings (e.g., route consistently runs more quickly than expected) or errors are discovered.
    • End the split between “correct route information”, which apparently only STS insiders get, and “obsolete, inaccurate, or haphazardly maintained route information”, which is the data provided to parents and call-center employees. Everyone should have access to the same authoritative, correct route information.
    • Document resolutions to all parent concerns in writing. Exclusively use written communications in response to straightforward parent concerns conveyed to STS in writing.
  • Effective customer (parent and school) help. Measures for success:
    • Issue-tracking system that creates per-incident accountability and allows parents to see status of each issue. (NOTE: This may have appeared in fall 2020 (link), but a non-standard part of the submission form will confuse users, blocking some submissions.)
    • Routine, non-emergency issues are resolved within 48 hours.
    • Call-center employees have access to accurate, live data, not simply the same obsolete, inaccurate, and haphazardly maintained data that parents can already see.
    • End abdication of responsibilities. Currently, STS shifts its customer-relations duties to schools. STS instead needs to takes direct responsibility for its business, end to end, including matters it abdicates, such as primary communications with parents and handling route questions. Parents are STS’s customers, not school administrative staff.
  • On-time performance. Measures for success:
    • First-day performance is strictly on time. Deviations of even one minute are not allowed, with only two exceptions: 1. bus is stopped at a school for longer than expected or 2. unusual traffic situation.
    • Any STS employee who is not all-in on first-day performance is better off finding employment elsewhere. First-day performance must be factored heavily into every STS employee’s annual performance metrics. It must be so heavy that flawless day-one performance is a prerequisite for any consideration on career advancement, raises, bonuses, etc. Failed day-one performance puts that employee on career probation for a full year. Advance prep, effective management, etc. will make for good 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.
    • If bus for a route is swapped due to any issue, bus-tracking app is immediately updated to show the correct bus for that route.
    • Performance indicators for every route, including on-time performance data, made fully public.
    • IMPORTANT: DISD STS has picked up DCS’s habit of lying about performance, papering over poor performance with lame excuses, typically related to traffic or weather, or baselining performance against absurd data, such as obviously absurd schedules. It also rigs the schedules so that it can pretend late buses are on time. For example, for 2021-2022, the afternoon bus-departure times at my son’s school are 20 or more minutes after school ends! While on-time performance means the bus is waiting for kids when the bell rings, with this absurd schedule, a bus could be 24 minutes late and still be “on time”! Performance must solely be rated on raw data and non-rigged schedules. DISD STS’s data-manipulation and performance-whitewashing must stop. (I know STS is whitewashing because DISD leadership has shared that STS reports good performance metrics, which is a lie.)
  • Buses are mechanically sound. Measures for success:
    • All buses receive a complete 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.
    • Newer buses assigned to longest routes. Reliability problems have a greater impact to longer routes.
    • Bus-maintenance data, including maintenance backlog, made fully public with a searchable, filterable dashboard interface with data-export functionality.

My expectations are informed by years of shoddy service:

  • Excessive route revisions. For the first three months of school in 2019, my child’s bus route has been revised around twelve (!) times since school started, with eight revisions in the first two weeks alone.
  • Initial routing made little sense. The routes have been 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. It took months for DISD to get the bus app working correctly. For the first several months of the school year, the bus was completely missing or had bad route information. When one thing was fixed, often another problem happened.
  • The first day of school, the bus is typically either missing or very late. The first day of school is the most important day to perform well! For 2019, it was 25+ minutes late. 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 prior years, it was even more late or entirely a no-show. The only times it is on time is when the route and driver are carry-overs from prior years.
  • 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 in 2019, 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 its responsibility to inform parents of routes. It throws that responsibility over the fence to school offices. That is a lazy, inappropriate, obsolete model. To dig the knife deeper into school staff, STS has repeatedly provided last minute, contradictory information. Several times, 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, broken communication system is STS’s normal way of communicating.
  • 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 rarely updated Twitter account. It wasn’t until a phone call with the transportation hotline a while back that I learned that there is a email address. Without an issue-tracking system that parents can access, it’s easy for our requests to just disappear. (Fall 2020 update: a communication tool is finally on the site, but it has a major UX problem that will cause the form to reject many submissions. Will update later.)
  • The staff at the transportation hotline is of limited usefulness. In several calls when I needed help with a missing or late bus, 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! And that was only if the hotline answerer was willing to help us. If not, we just get patronized and misdirected until we hang up in frustration.
  • Buses had broken equipment on day 1 of 2019. 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 defective buses! Are buses not reviewed over the summer?