Thursday, December 13, 2018
All roads lead to Max Christensen, that is, if your child attends school in Iowa by way of a school bus. Serving as director of transportation services at the Iowa Department of Education and overseeing the safe travels of Iowa students, there are miles to go before he sleeps each day. And for his exemplary service and significant contributions to the pupil transportation industry, Christensen was named School Bus Fleet’s 2018 Administrator of the Year.
With over 30 years in the student transportation industry, three years as a bus driver, 13 years working as a transportation director for numerous school districts, and 16 years at the Department, Christensen has made a significant impact on a host of transportation issues, including reducing driver shortages, updating driver training, developing online driver training and electronic inspection systems, and spearheading a pilot project implementing supplemental warning lights mounted at bumper level, resulting in a better than 50 percent reduction in vehicles passing by school buses.
Christensen is also involved in professional organizations such as the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) where he has served as a president and board member. He played a crucial role in establishing NASDPTS’s position supporting the use of lap-shoulder seatbelts on buses.
Known for being a visionary with superior communication skills, Christensen led the way to establish a new location for the National Congress on School Transportation, now held in Des Moines. Every five years, NCST brings together representatives from all 50 states and a number of foreign countries to discuss and develop school bus specifications for the nation.
“My success, quite frankly, has happened because I have had a lot of good people to work with, and work for me,” Christensen said. “Their good work has made me look good. Maybe I have been the spark plug in a lot of things, but it takes a lot more than just a spark plug to make an engine run.”
Max credits three people as major influences on his life and career successes. First and foremost, his dad, who happened to be a school bus driver when Max was born.
“He instilled a great work ethic in me to do things, and do them well,” Christensen said. “If you’re not going to do them well, don’t do it. When I was transportation director, I never asked any of my people to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself. And oftentimes I did it to show it can be done, or should be done, and done well.”
Arvid Goettsche was another person who had a significant impact on Christensen. Gottsche was the district superintendent for then Anita schools where Christensen took his first job as a transportation director, mechanic, and bus driver.
“Arvid guided me, he helped me, helped me through a lot of my initial mistakes,” Christensen said. “He worked with me, and he demonstrated to me the need to enjoy the job, and how to step back and look at it so you can step back into it and continue to do a good job. He understood when to lighten up, and when to be serious. He showed me how to be a boss, but at times, also be a genuine friend.”
And then there’s Chris Darling, who was the transportation director for the Fort Dodge school district during Christensen’s time as a school bus driver.
“That was my first experience in a larger school district, and the fact I had been a director and came to work for him as a bus driver, he allowed me to see more of the inner workings,” Christensen said. “I could see that many of the challenges he faced were the same I had faced at a much smaller district. I saw how he handled and managed it in a larger arena.”
Darling generously shared his knowledge and experience, recognized Christensen’s talents, and encouraged him to utilize those abilities by returning to a transportation directorship.
Christensen took what he learned and put it to practical use when he moved on to serve as transportation director for the Perry school district, and then to his current post with the Iowa Department of Education. Christensen now works closely with Darling, who is the executive director for the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association.
Skilled, supportive leaders and mentors have helped Christensen along the way.
”In turn, I have attempted to be a good leader myself, and give people a chance,” Christensen said. “I like to tell people my school bus career started in a mud hole.”
He grew up on a farm, chose to farm for 15 years, and tells the story of a crisp, Iowa spring morning, while on his tractor disking fields, being approached by a neighbor seeking help freeing a stranded truck stuck in the mud.
Christensen happily obliged, refused payment for his services, and encouraged his neighbor to pay the good deed forward someday. One year later, the neighbor was retiring from his job as transportation director for Anita schools, and recommended Christensen for the job.
Though Christensen has enjoyed a rewarding career in the transportation business, he has also experienced plenty of challenges.
“One of my greatest challenges here at the Department was when we decided to put our driver training online,” Christensen said. “It was a five-year process, one that I thought was a necessary step, so we kept hammering away at it.
“I also consider that one of my best, and most rewarding successes. Partially because it was such a lengthy process, but also the fact it has saved school districts so much money. They no longer have to send their drivers to community colleges or other locations to receive their training. It has helped alleviate the school bus driver shortage because schools can now get drivers trained more quickly and get those better trained driver’s behind the steering wheel sooner.”
And in his characteristic, forward-thinking manner, long before there were active shooter drills, Christensen made use of an unusual resource while working for the Perry school district. He partnered with the local law enforcement S.W.A.T. team to provide each bus driver with a hands-on, simulated scenario of a bus takeover and the experience of managing a hostage crisis situation. Fast forward to the present, and Christensen was 20 years ahead of his time. Such training is far more commonplace now.
However, in all his professional travels you will never hear him say, “Are we there yet?”
“I’m excited about the future,” Christensen said. “One of the things I’m cautiously looking forward to, but also have concerns about, is the advent of self-driving vehicles. The automobile industry is quickly going in that direction, and it eventually will come our way in the transportation industry. I think it’s amazing, but of course needs to be safe, too.”
Christensen’s journey in the student transportation profession continues. The landscape of the industry is ever-changing, and the work of ensuring the transportation welfare and safety of Iowa school children is never done. However, with Christensen’s expertise and experience, you can be assured it’s a less bumpy ride.