DELMAR – Bethlehem Central School District has faced head-on many challenges with student transportation in recent years, and the person leading the team has been awarded one of the highest honors in student transportation.
Karim Johnson, director of student transportation for BCSD, was honored last month by the School Bus Fleet magazine as it named him National School Bus Fleet Administrator of the Year.
Johnson’s push to modernize GPS, telematics and tablets for route navigation are some things that edged him over the competition. Although Johnson was the one being honored, he shined the entire spotlight on his team.
“It gives me a sense of joy, pride and accomplishment to be recognized for this prestigious honor,” Johnson said. “The biggest honor goes to the professional drivers, attendants, mechanics and office staff of Bethlehem, without whom this achievement would not be possible.”
Johnson has spent the last three years at Bethlehem and dove into being a leader. He said it was his 27-year career driving buses that helped facilitate his leadership role.
Johnson started driving a school bus when he was 18 as a way to pay for college. There have been challenges, like any career, but it was those challenges that molded Johnson into the leader he is today.
On March 13, 2020, Johnson drove his students home in a previous district and then the pandemic lockdown began. The following Wednesday, he quickly transitioned to a meal transporter for 5,000 students. School transportation had to pivot fast to serve the needs of its students.
Since his move to Bethlehem, Johnson has had to understand, adapt and maneuver student transportation in a post-pandemic world. One of the biggest challenges has been severe driver shortages in the district.
“Karim is uniquely engaged with his peers in the pupil transportation industry. He has leveraged these connections to leave no stone unturned when it comes to driver recruitment and training,” Bethlehem Superintendent Jody Monroe said. “Karim has worked with officials at the Department of Motor Vehicles to provide onsite testing and certification of drivers that is intended to create a more straightforward path for drivers to become licensed, and he has worked with our communications department to create a dedicated space on the website for interested driver candidates.”
In 2021, Johnson proposed and was granted authority to purchase a $1.8 million zero-emission bus fleet for the district 12 months before Gov. Kathy Hochul called for clean bus fleets by 2035.
Along with the electric fleet, Johnson has deployed advanced transportation technology to increase efficiency and battle the driver shortage. Upgrades to GPS and telematics, the implementation of driver tablets, and the use of student RFID cards to scan on and off the bus allow the district to better manage routes and staff.
Johnson takes great pride in being honored as the National Administrator of the Year. With that pride, he is thankful for those in his life who have shown him what a great leader can be and two stand out. Johnson credits retired Lt. Col. George Lee and former Chief Business and Financial Officer Judith Kehoe.
“I had the pleasure to work for [Lee] when I transitioned from a school bus driver to my first position in leadership with a school district. Sadly he passed away in 2006, but what I learned through our time together still follows me today,” Johnson said. “In the short time I had the pleasure of working under [Kehoe’s] leadership, I have learned so much. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I am a better leader from her brief influence on my career.”
According to Johnson, leadership is not always an inherent trait, but is often made from the moments that stick with that person. He proves this by continuing to honor and thank those who helped him along the way to this honor.