The Last Stop
HSE Director of Transportation Jim White Retires Right on Time
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Jamie Sangar
Planes, trains and automobiles. According to Jim White, who has been the Director of Transportation for Hamilton Southeastern Schools for the past 14.5 years, the logistics for each mode of transportation is the same. A former Air Force pilot, White says that when it comes to getting from one place to the next, safety is paramount, followed by schedule.
“In the Air Force, I had to make sure I took off on time and landed on time,” White says. “This job is time sensitive as well. I gave up airplanes and pilots for school busses and drivers.”
White graduated from Purdue and immediately joined the Air Force, where he flew for 20 years before teaching aviation technology at Purdue. Then in 2003, he landed the job of Director of Transportation at HSE, where he had oversight for the purchase of busses, the garage and the routing of 16,000 students. During his tenure, he’s witnessed the area’s steady growth. When he first started, the school system had 130 busses. Now, they have 300, and they transport 22,000 kids daily.
“We encounter glitches every day because there are so many moving parts — no pun intended,” White says. “It’s a mind game every morning trying to figure out how to make one thing work without impacting something else.”
Arriving at the office at 5:30 a.m., White starts taking calls from drivers who are sick or can’t make it to work. If the weather is poor (fog, snow, ice), he arrives closer to 4:30 a.m. so he can consult with the superintendent and directors from adjacent communities like Carmel and Westfield. Decisions regarding delays or cancellations must be made by 5:30 a.m.
“We can’t wait any longer because if we do, parents start making plans and it causes a wrinkle in their day,” White says. But altering the daily routine adds an extra set of challenges as well.
“A two-hour delay, for instance, requires planning for the special needs children who go from school to a work environment,” says White, who through the years has seen changes to the transportation system — most notably, the advancement in technology. Now they have routing software that’s more user-friendly.
“We still do hands-on routing, but it draws all the information from the student database, so that we can see where students are and where we need to route the busses,” says White, noting that they also have high-definition cameras on busses, which has resulted in handling fewer discipline problems. In addition, GPS on the busses allows White and his team to see exactly where a bus is and what time it stopped and picked up a student.
“This is nice because if we get a call from a parent who claims that one of our drivers went right by and didn’t stop to pick up their child, we can see if that’s really the case,” White says.
Though he describes the job as being all-consuming, he’s loved every minute of it. Especially the funny conversations he’s had with students.
“Elementary kids are brutally honest and will tell you exactly what they’re thinking,” says White, recalling the time he subbed for a driver and a special needs student boarded the bus.
“Are you a good driver?” the boy asked.
“How long have you been driving?” the student inquired.
“Since before you were born,” White replied.
The following day a different substitute was driving, and the boy asked, “Where’s the man?”
“I thought he missed me, but the next time I subbed, he looked at me and uttered unenthusiastically, ‘Oh, it’s you again.’ Cracked me up.”
White is newly retired as of January 1 and still adjusting to the transition.
“When I gave up my phone to my replacement, Zach McKinney, it felt weird,” White says. “It’s been on my hip 24/7 for the past 14 years.”
But White is happy to turn over the reins so that he can travel with his wife, Ann.
“On my bucket list is to drive my Corvette down Route 66 just for kicks,” White says. “I’d also like to drive Blue Ridge Parkway in the fall.”