Photos: Dave Anderson
When Charlie Ott was first hired by Clovis Unified School District four years ago, he was presented with this challenge: provide better service to the students with special needs. Though it was no easy task, Ott knew he had the support of the district behind him every step of the way.
“There was a culture unlike any other school district I’d ever seen,” says Ott, the transportation manager for the district, which is located near Fresno in the center of California’s San Joaquin Valley. “In some districts there’s a lot of struggle for a piece of the pie. That doesn’t exist here. Here, the focus is on the children.”
Nearly 41,000 students attend schools in this 197-square-mile district that encompasses rural, suburban and urban landscapes, and that number is growing at an unprecedented rate. According to Ott, the district anticipated that 400 new students would enroll for the 2014-15 school year. Recently, they revised the count to more than 890.
Ask anyone in Clovis and they will tell you it all started with Dr. Floyd “Doc” Buchanan. The Oklahoma native was fresh out of UC Berkeley grad school when his mentor sent him to Clovis in 1959 to serve as superintendent. At his home in Fresno, Doc, now 91, shared a few thoughts on the origins of “Clovis Culture.” “When I first came here I saw there were chain-link fences around the schools,” he recalls. “I told my maintenance team to take ’em down the next morning when the parents were bringing their kids to school.” At a board meeting later that night, Doc explained: “I just have one question: Am I here to educate or incarcerate?”
With Charlie Ott sitting appreciatively in attendance, Doc Buchanan explained the philosophy that has made Clovis one of the top-performing districts in the state. “You want to give teachers good materials, good buildings and good support,” he says. “Good buses are a part of that because the first person who has contact with your children in the morning is the bus driver. When you deliver students who are calm and ready to go, you get quality education.”
When Doc first arrived, only 38% of his students were reading at grade level, and the drop-out rate was 40%. Eight years later, 95% of his students were at grade level and his dropouts were down to 4%. “Do you know what education is?” he asks, a twang still discernible at the edge of his voice. “It’s the art of removing excuses.”
Ott’s logistics background and experience working in transportation as a commercialdriver made him a perfect fit for jobs in school transportation. The first job he landed was as transportation manager for the Yuba Unified School District north of Sacramento. His approach to running Yuba’s transportation department was to address “operational efficiencies” to reduce costs, but he ended up having a positive effect on more than the district’s bottom line. He brought the same strategy to Clovis 13 years later.
At Yuba, Ott first did a cost analysis that demonstrated that the district could save $250,000 per year by taking over transportation for special-needs students as well as provide better service to those students, the same task he later took on at Clovis. “It didn’t make sense to me,” Ott recalls. “My role was providing service for the kids in the district, and those [special-needs] kids were our kids.”
After his proposal was approved, Ott looked to his drivers to help him determine the best buses for the new special-needs fleet. “I had the drivers go out and drive the various manufacturers’ buses,” he recalls. “I was relying on that feedback to help me decide what to purchase.” Ott’s drivers unanimously chose the CE Series.
Upon his arrival in Clovis, Ott looked at the district’s plan, and he had a few suggestions. “It was a 15-year plan, but their equipment [would only last] seven years,” Ott explained. “So I presented them with the IC Bus [and said], ‘If we want a 15-year bus, this is the best piece of equipment.’ ”
Recently Ott had a conversation with the man who succeeded him in Yuba City. Ott wanted to know how his IC Buses were doing. “Batteries and starters,” was the reply. “What do you mean?” asked Ott. “That’s all I’ve had to do to them in 10 years,” the new manager said. “Replace a few batteries and starters.”
The Big Difference
Three years ago, Ott’s special-needs transportation plan went into effect at Clovis, where he was transporting 352 special-needs students per day. Now the number is twice that, due mainly to parents and guardians who have new faith in Clovis USD’s revolutionized transportation department. Since all of Clovis’ transportation has been brought back under one roof, praise and thanks have flooded in from parents across the district.
Superintendent Janet Young notes, “I get letters every year from parents who say, ‘Your drivers know my child and know their special needs, and I can trust that my child will be greeted in the morning and taken home safely in the afternoon.’ It’s a tribute to Charlie Ott and our special-needs drivers.”
Steve Stephens, a retired police officer who now coaches football at Fresno’s Hoover High School, also runs a group home for developmentally disabled teenage boys. He said the new buses from Clovis have made all the difference for them. “The bus just said ‘Clovis Unified School District’. It didn’t publicize [their] disability. It made my boys feel normal, and I appreciated that.”
Ott’s department runs 150 buses and 600 other vehicles, from golf carts to maintenance vehicles. The district averages 10,000 field trips a year, from Friday night football games to museum excursions. They spend $2 million a year on charter buses and vans. The department is open from 4:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. with a staff person on call 24/7. His maintenance department runs two shifts per day, and also serves as a warranty and repair station for their 91 IC buses.
“My tenure has been short here,” says Ott, “but the thing that means the most to me is completing that special-needs plan.” Doc Buchanan would undoubtedly agree.