The unsung heroes of any school district are the bus drivers and that is true for Cambridge Schools, too.
They rise early to make sure the buses are ready for the routes. They are the first and last representative of the school your child sees each day. They are the only district employees who spend the majority of the time with their backs to the students, yet still maintain discipline. And they are responsible for the safety of your children in conditions they have extraordinarily little control over.
“It absolutely takes a special person to be a bus driver,” Transportation Director Dan Daugherty said. “When I first started driving, I had no idea what I was getting into. When you get behind the wheel and look up in the mirror and see all those kids, it’s like ‘Holy Cow, what was I thinking.’
“Right now, we have a good group of people,” Daugherty added about the drivers. “As a group, they really work well together.”
It is easy to see the things that bond this group together. They have fun and they care about the kids."
“We have a good time out here, really we do,” said Jan Leeper who has been driving buses in the Cambridge School District since 1977. “We get along really well together.”
Transportation secretary Sally Fields agrees.
“I have noticed that we all kind of band together,” Fields said. “We feel a little excluded sometimes, but we try to do our own things to keep morale up and do things that make the drivers feel appreciated.”
Drivers truly are the unsung heroes of the school district, but don’t think for a minute they are not appreciated.
“We have great drivers who care about our kids,” Superintended Dan Coffman said. “Their role is vital to the success of our school district. They are the first people our kids see in mornings and the last people they see in the afternoons.”
The 14 fulltime drivers plus the transportation director cover 15 routes and nearly 1,000 miles each day transporting students to and from school. They also drive students to approximately 400 extra events and field trips during the school year.
Safety of the Students
It is a large responsibility.
“When you boil it down, most people can learn how to drive a bus,” Daugherty said. “But when you put 50 or 60 kids on a bus, it is a challenge. You must be able to pay attention to the road without becoming distracted by the students. This is a difficult task. Our drivers do an excellent job and I appreciate what they do for our students' safety and wellbeing.”
Keeping track of them not only includes when they are on the bus, but before they get on the bus and after they get off the bus.
“Safety is huge for us. It’s our priority every day and even more so with this pandemic going on,” Fields said. “Our drivers do a great job to make sure our kids our safe.
“Lots of times, kids don’t understand why there are so many rules on the bus,” Fields continued, “but keeping those kids safe is our number one priority.”
Part of keeping kids safe is making sure the bus is safe too.
“Before a bus goes out, drivers spend at least 20 minutes going over it,” Fields said. “A bus doesn’t leave the lot until it’s checked over. We pre-trip every time we take a bus out.”
The pre-trip includes checking all lights, the emergency exits, fluids and belts in the engine, tires and even looking under the bus to make sure nothing is leaking.
“It’s a ton of responsibility for the amount of money you make,” Fields said. “When you think of being out on a bus with 50 kids and you are responsible for all their lives.”
A Good Job
But getting to know the kids makes it all worthwhile.
“I love the kids and I love my route,” Leeper said. “I’ve always loved driving and being around them. It’s not like you’re out on a route all day long which made this a great job when I had kids.”
Bus drivers are guaranteed five hours per day and receive health insurance benefits.
“Driving a bus is a good job for someone who is semi-retired who doesn’t have Medicare yet and needs some health insurance,” Daugherty said. “It’s a good job for someone who needs the insurance. Maybe they don’t want to work a fulltime job anymore or they want their summers off. Maybe they have their own business but could use the benefits.”
While the pay isn’t great, drivers can supplement their income by driving students to extracurricular activities and field trips. Drivers sign up and get assigned trips on a rotating basis. Most trips will earn drivers an additional five hours of pay. For those who are already working eight hours per day, a trip goes right to overtime.
There are other opportunities to pick up some extra pay as well. According to Daugherty, several drivers spend extra hours working in a school kitchen or doing custodial or maintenance work. One driver even helps in the bus garage between routes.
Between morning and afternoon routes, Leeper volunteers at the schools to help pack meals that go to students in the classroom (COVID-19 pandemic protocol), and still has time to run home to relax or “throw some laundry in the washer.”
To be certified to drive a bus, drivers must pass a pre-certification test, complete 12 hours driving, and pass an oral test about the bus. Drivers are re-certified every six years with the district covering the costs of the certification.
And there is a need for drivers. Not everyone is going to drive bus for 40-plus years like Leeper.
“Jan retired and came back,” Daugherty points out. “She is someone who enjoys being here, enjoys working for the school, and enjoys being around the kids and the other people who work here. I’d like to have 20 of her.”
Support for Drivers
While there is a lot of responsibility as a bus driver, there is a lot of support too.
For example, Fields, as transportation secretary, does more than just schedule drivers for field trips. She is available while the drivers on routes to answer questions and gives her job description as “making sure the drivers have everything they need.”
“It’s hard to know what is going to come up each day,” Fields said. “Sometimes kids don’t know where to get off the bus or don’t know if they are on the right bus and we can help the drivers get them to the right place.”
The list of things Fields may help with includes kids getting sick on the bus, having to go into a school to use the bathroom, and potentially taking a backup bus to a driver if there is a mechanical problem with the bus that is in use.
Fortunately, mechanical problems are few and far between in recent years. According to Daugherty, the bus fleet is in better condition now than it has been in many years.
“We are in great shape. When I first stepped into this position, the average age our buses was 15 years old,” Daugherty said referencing the industry standard of 10 years. “This administration has been unbelievable in upgrading our fleet. Right now, our oldest bus is 5 years old.”
Currently, 15 buses are used daily on routes with an additional five buses kept as spares. There are also two vans in use and a spare.
“It is a complete turnaround,” Daugherty said. “Every year when the State Patrol came in to do our annual inspections, we were just hoping we got all of them through. Now, there is no doubt.”
New Buses and Efficiencies
While the cost of purchasing new buses can seem daunting, the transportation budget is in much better shape than five years ago too, partly because there is less time and money spent on repairing buses and buying new parts. In fact, the bus garage is getting by with only one mechanic on the payroll as opposed to two mechanics they employed for several years.
“The new bus fleet is why,” Daugherty said. “We don’t have as many repairs and especially a lot less body work. Before we upgraded our fleet, body work was a huge part keeping the buses road worthy and safe. They were so old; they were just rusting out.”
The garage handles general maintenance like oil changes and any other repairs that come along. And even with new buses, there are some things that must be checked and bugs that need worked out.
Another savings being realized is due the decision to re-align the elementary buildings a few years ago going from three K-5 buildings to one K-2 and one 3-5 building.
“When we made the change with our elementary schools, we had to recreate all of our bus routes. It was a huge undertaking,” Daugherty said. “As it turns out, the changes save the district a lot of money in fuel consumption and wear and tear and the buses. From a transportation standpoint, the realignment led to big savings.”
Another improvement to the bus fleet is the camera system installed on each bus that records the activities on the bus.
“The camera systems have been a great addition,” Daugherty said. “It takes some pressure off the driver.”
With the cameras, the drivers don’t have to look in the mirror as often. If something does happen, it is reported to Daugherty. He reviews the video and sends it to the principals to handle the discipline.
“You’re always going to have kids that misbehave, but since we installed cameras, we’ve seen a decrease in incidents,” Daugherty said. “Occasionally, I just pull the footage and watch. If I see something or see a kid doing something they shouldn’t be doing, I’ll send the video to the principal.”
Stop Arm Cameras and Wi-Fi
A new addition to the camera systems are the stop arm cameras.
The large number of cars that run the red lights at a bus stop is a concern everywhere. Drivers try to get the license plate number and a description of the vehicle, if possible, to provide to law enforcement, but that is difficult.
“People think it’s no big deal if you run our lights,” Fields said. “I can tell you, being late to work is not as important as our kids’ safety.”
The stop arm cameras should help deter impatient drivers. The cameras take a photo of the vehicle after it passes the bus giving the district the license plate number and a photo of the vehicle to provide to law enforcement officers.
Another upgrade is coming to some buses. Plans are in place to install Wi-Fi access on the buses so students can work access the Internet while on the bus. It also gives the district the ability to park a Wi-Fi-enabled school bus in an underserved area so students can access the Internet from home.
The units limit Internet access to school and educational websites.
Unfortunately, the buildings utilized by the transportation department next to Pine Field are not as nice as the bus fleet.
The bus garage has three bays and most of the equipment needed to work on buses, although a wash bay that would enable salt and grime to be rinsed off the buses would help extended the life of the buses and keep them safer.
The office and driver lounge leave much to be desired.
“I’m 58 and this building has been here as long as I’ve been alive,” Daugherty said. “This was the original locker room when they played football on Pine Field.”
The cinderblock building with concrete floor does not provide much warmth in the wintertime, plus there is only one bathroom for all 15 drivers, the mechanic, Fields, and Daugherty to use.
Daugherty did say it is better than it used to be, though, thanks to some “improvements” over the years.
That is just one more reason bus drivers are the unsung heroes of the school district.