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Daily drivers: Stress, noise part of regular routes for school bus drivers

Imagine a one and a half-hour road trip with 75 children in the back seat.

Take the same trip back home.

Now imagine doing it again the next day.

Such is the life of a school bus driver.

"Sometimes it gets off the chain," McDuffie School Bus Driver James Bonner said. "But I don't do it for the money. I do it for the kids. It's not a good paying job, but I like doing it for the kids."

To supplement his income, Mr. Bonner works as a custodian at Dearing Elementary School. Mr. Bonner has been chauffeuring children to school for 25 years. Every day, he hears a big dose of what parents hear in smaller doses - "He won't scoot over." "She kicked me." "He won't move." "She won't sit down." "He took my bag."

In a recent presentation to members of the Board of Education, Assistant Superintendent Jim Franklin said even children who are normally well-behaved act differently in the school bus environment.

"Peer pressure is a big issue, too, because a lot of these kids who might not act up in the classroom, once they get around their peers on the bus where they have less structure, they may become a different kind of child. Their behavior often changes," Dr. Franklin said.

Because the negative behavior is unusual, many parents don't believe it when their child gets in trouble. Dr. Franklin said each bus is equipped with video cameras and the principals use the videos to support the driver and verify information.

If a parent has concerns, Dr. Franklin said it is against the law for them to get on the bus to talk without first getting permission from the driver. He suggested parents give the driver their phone number and ask them to call later, or set up a conference with Dr. Franklin. He said the driver has no time to stop their route to discuss problems. But many of them try to be accommodating.

"When parents come to the bus and try to talk, the driver doesn't have an attitude. He just sits there and talks to them with no attitude, even though the parent is mad," seventh grader Aceondra Williams said.

It makes a stressful job. In fact, the highest number of sick days in the school system are claimed by the bus drivers, Dr. Franklin said.

"They have a very stressful job," he told the board members. "If you see a bus driver, please take the opportunity to tell them you appreciate what they do."

But instead of appreciation, many people call in complaints. Transportation Supervisor Butch Blount said he receives many phone calls from other drivers on the road who say they are "behind bus number so-and-so and the children are walking up and down the aisle," or "the driver is talking on the cell phone."

Mr. Blount said his department uses a push-to-talk cell phone link system to communicate with each other and that is what the drivers are doing. And they must control the children on the 40-ft. long bus from the driver seat.

"They get tired of yelling some days because nobody's listening to them," sixth grader Asha Roberts said. "I think all the kids on the bus should listen to the driver and sit down. They have to make sure we are safe and keep us from accidents."

The department has two monitors for regular education buses, who also double as substitute drivers. With budget cuts and hiring freezes, there's no way to supply a monitor for each of the 41 drivers. Even in a perfect financial world, the task could be impossible.

"I don't know if they'd be able to find 41 monitors, to be honest," bus driver Billie Jean McGrory said with a laugh. "We're the only bunch in the world crazy enough to do this."

And they support each other, waving as they pass on the road and stopping to let each other out of a driveway. They even take up an annual collection of money for the crossing guards who stop traffic for them - Larry Wiley at Norris Elementary and Lillie Jean Franklin at Thomson Middle School.

"We couldn't make it without them," Mrs. McGrory said. "And we have the best mechanics (Chip Dollar and Enoch Booker). You don't get no better than them two."

In spite of the headaches, the drivers said they love the children. The drivers take on a lot of responsibilities, keeping up with book bags and coats, backing up to let a child retrieve a forgotten project, digging in their own pockets to replace lost lunch money and driving across town to take home a child who was placed on the wrong bus at the school.

"There's a lot of stuff we do for these kids that's not in our job description and we don't get credit for," Mrs. McGrory said. "And the kids are disrespectful. They say ‘I pay your paycheck.' But, I tell them I pay taxes, too. The pay is very little. If it wasn't for the benefits, there would be no drivers."

The younger children are noisier and stand up and move around more than the older ones, Mrs. McGrory said.

"I like bus drivers who don't talk to us. We want to just get on and talk to each other and enjoy ourselves," seventh grader Jakema Angevine said.

But first they have to actually get on the bus. Ms. McGrory said many of the high school students will walk to the corner store, or start horsing around and never make it to the bus stop. When she picks up those who are waiting and drives off, she will receive a call to go back and pick up someone who showed up later.

"And I don't think that's fair," she said. "That takes our time."

The drivers only have one and one-half hour to complete their routes, according to Mr. Blount.

"And if you look at traffic, you know they can't get through all that traffic in that amount of time, so they have to go extra," he said. "They are dedicated. They do not ever leave me hanging. ... They are very, very dependable."

In addition to the children, the drivers also take on the welfare of the entire community. Each driver must be certified for Highway Watch under GEMA. Through this mandatory certification, they are trained to watch for and report possible terroristic activity.

Another mandatory certification is through the National Weather Service to be storm watchers. "If they see a tornado or any other severe weather that is approaching their bus out in the rural areas, they have a number to call and report it," Dr. Franklin said.

The drivers have a Commercial Drivers License issued by the State of Georgia, plus they must have an S-endorsement on their license. Once that is accomplished, they have on-site driving training.

And sometimes, they take those qualifications to greener pastures.

"We lose a lot of drivers to long-distance driving, such as trucks or buses that carry passengers to the airport in Atlanta," Dr. Franklin said.

But it isn't a totally thankless job. In October, the department holds a breakfast at the bus barn for the drivers.

"It's a special day when we say 'attaboy' to the bus drivers for a job well-done," Superintendent Mark Petersen said during the last breakfast. "As far as I'm concerned, they have the hardest job in the school system."

Web posted on Thursday, March 19, 2009

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