The Right Decision: Stay on Track with DSG

April 2020 Newsletter

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” – Yogi Berra

We have devoted this inaugural issue of the Decision Support Group newsletter to what we believe is coming next for schools and school transportation following the extraordinary impacts of the global pandemic. There are predictable implications within reasonable degrees of certainty, and we should all be prepared with reasoned short- and medium-term responses that need not constrain long-term organizational flexibility.

Tomorrow is coming. Let’s start preparing to day.

It is our belief that both public and private sector organizations have to do 5 things to prepare themselves properly:

1Acknowledge how little you actually know and get comfortable with the idea of decision making under uncertainty.
2Understand that yesterday’s heuristics are unlikely to be appropriate tomorrow.
3Appreciate that experience and expertise are not the same, and that neither exists only at the top of the organization.
4Identify trustworthy peers and partners for sharing critical and timely feedback.
5Accept that positive outcomes won’t always emerge from good decisions or negative outcomes from bad decisions. Sometimes you just get unlucky. Other times you don’t.

Everything else is a prediction, and as Yogi said, those are tough to make, but it is critical that we make those predictions to help guide our organizations. Here are ours:

Prediction 1:School finance will face significant and painful cuts, and they will begin immediately

Let’s start with one that we can be almost certain is correct. You can’t have double-digit unemployment and assume everything will be hunky dory financially. What is important to consider is how different degrees of misery will impact organizations differently. Leaders must predict what level of cuts will cause them to interrupt, disrupt, or eliminate service. Knowing these thresholds will allow leaders and managers to create contingency plans with ranges of response that enhances flexibility, mitigates negative service impacts, and (maybe most importantly) buys time to regularly reassess the direction of the trend.

The thinking, analysis, and planning necessary to build these responses can’t happen if everyone is responding as if everything is a crisis. There needs to be a portion of your team, whether internally assigned or externally procured, that is focused on this critical, ongoing activity. We know this with absolute certainty from our own experience: a little planning goes a long way, so finding a way to create that space for your team will be key.

Prediction 2: Transportation will no longer be the high hurdle in discussions about starting school later.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but our assessment of the situation is that if budgets go to heck it actually becomes more not less likely that changes can happen to support later start times. If district budgets are being cut 8 or 10 percent (a number that seems conservative in a lot of instances to us) there will inevitably be a need to look at the tiering structure of the routes. This provides the opportunity to incorporate healthy start times in the analysis and assess the most favorable and well balanced minimal cost approach.

The financial impact of the virus response will impact every aspect of transportation service delivery. However, all those impacts do not have to be negative. Districts and communities can design a decision-making process that maintains the greatest degree of service delivery possible in the context of the new financial environment. This will require thoughtfulness, creativity, innovation, and a significant amount of stomach-turning hard decisions be made. Preparing early and being deliberate is likely to give you the best chance for success.

Prediction 3: Schools will be forever changed by the response to Covid-19 but the big question is, how?

We will not go back to “normal”, assuming we define normal as how schools were operating in December 2019. However, if we are being honest with ourselves, things in December 2019 were not that normal. We had shortages of bus drivers, qualified teachers, and operational staff. We had substantial dislocation of existing educational practices through digital learning and programmatic specialization that were aspirational in some but appearing in most places. We had significant issues related to the intersection of federal, state, and local policies across the educational spectrum. So again, if we are being honest, maybe that prior “normal” wasn’t all that great anyway.

Once we figure out when our students will return, it will be necessary to reshape the educational landscape to reflect the financial, functional, and operational realities of losing half a year’s worth of educational time and to face many of the hard decisions that organizations may be avoiding. It is our sense that organizations that design and institute decision-making strategies that allow for the efficient identification of viable choices and that support expedited decisions will be the ones who successfully manage the uncertainty of the future. Organizations that are reactive will always be behind the decision-making curve and will regularly be selecting the best worst option available.

We know that we will not be proven exactly correct in our predictions, but we are confident that we will be in the ballpark. We are also confident that we can assist organizations create the infrastructure and processes necessary to deal with the uncertainty that we believe will be the defining characteristic of our lives in the year ahead. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you think we can help you. We hope that you are all safe and looking forward to coming out the other side of this extraordinary event ready to face the challenges, and opportunities, in front of all of us.

At DSG we know that real problems need real solutions. Public and private sector organizations that serve the people have a particular responsibility for being thoughtful and responsive in their solution development. Please contact us and see how we can help you address the full range of challenges your organization must confront.

Tim Ammon and Tom Platt (Owners of DSG)