“Most people do not fail at this job because they can’t drive a school bus,” Bishop said. “They fail at this job because they don’t have the other characteristics that are required of a school bus driver: the [character], the driving record, the ability to handle discipline on the buses, the traffic, the hours, the weather.”
Having all of those children in your care is a tremendous responsibility, Prince William School Superintendent Steven L. Walts told the drivers at a training session last week at Brentsville High School.
“Unfortunately, not every one of our kids comes from a house where there’s three meals a day, and everyone’s employed, and everything is good,” Walts told the drivers. “There’s a lot of challenges that many of our students have, and you have that great opportunity to welcome them in the morning and to see them off in the evening. I appreciate not only the safety of your responsibility, but the fact that the way in which you do your job makes a difference.”
Bus drivers in Prince William make from $15 to $30 an hour, depending on their experience. The median annual income for school bus drivers nationally was $27,580 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The job attracts many retirees who like having evenings, weekends, holidays and summers off. It’s also popular among parents of young children, who in Prince William, Loudoun and Fairfax are allowed to bring their kids on the bus with them while they work. Bus drivers in the District and Arlington, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are not allowed to have their children on the bus.
“It’s a great job for [young parents], because you don’t have to pay for a babysitter,” said Pat Simmermon, a retiree who has driven a bus for nine years. As a former small-business owner, she likes the schedule. Her husband, Harry, has been driving a bus for five years. He drives the bus that two of his grandkids take to and from Mountain View Elementary School.
Albert Luster was in the final stages of his training this month. After retiring from Computer Sciences Corp. in January, Luster did some projects around the house for a few months but became bored. He decided it was time to start working on his bucket list. First up: driving a school bus.
“It was something that I always thought I wanted to do, even back when I was that young tender age of riding on the bus myself,” Luster said.
The biggest adjustments during training, Luster said, have been getting used to the turn ratio and to going no faster than 45 miles per hour, even when the speed limit is 55 (except on interstate highways with a speed limit of more than 55 mph, on which the buses can go 60, according to Virginia state regulations).
On one of Luster’s last training rides, instructor Debby Lear noticed big improvements in his control of the bus.
“On day one it was a lot of ‘to the left, to the left,’ ” said Lear, who drove a bus for about 10 years before becoming a full-time driver trainer. “Now he is in the middle. He has learned to center this large beast.”
Lear said, however, that it’s not maneuvering a large vehicle or corralling rowdy kids that makes the job so difficult. It’s the weather, particularly climbing onto a cold bus first thing in the morning. “When you get on a cold bus, you think you’re going to go on and warm up, but it takes a while,” she said.
Vance also said weather was her biggest challenge. Her worst day on the job was when her bus ran into some power lines that were weighed down with ice. She talked to the students and sang songs with them, she said, to try to keep everyone calm until a rescue squad came.
Bishop said that although it is a difficult job, he thinks that many of the drivers in the county would continue to work if their pay were cut in half, because they say they feel a responsibility to their passengers and their parents. He said drivers who are obviously sick sometimes come to work anyway because they don’t want to let down “their” kids.
“It’s nice to hear that kind of attitude: They’re my kids. I’m responsible for them. I don’t trust them with anybody else,” Bishop said.
Lear agreed. “It’s one of those jobs,” she said, “that it’s very hard to get out of your blood.”