A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

School bus drivers can be “unsung heroes” in K-12: some KY districts struggle to find enough

By Ron Daley
Special to the NKyTribune

Kentucky K-12 bus drivers face many responsibilities being the first school official to warmly greet students and deliver them to their school for the day and return them home safely around eight hours later.

Breathitt bus advertising for drivers (provided photos)

Districts across the state are having difficulty recruiting bus drivers for this critical task in the education process.  Most of the bus routes in rural districts take about two hours, thus, tying up the driver all day in many instances for just four hours of pay.  Drivers must maintain discipline and safety on the buses while watching the road.

Floyd County Superintendent Danny Adkins says, “I feel the importance of bus drivers is great as they set the tone for the students every day. Bus drivers witness firsthand where the students come from and understand the challenges they face. I think every educator should ride a bus at least once in their career.”

Superintendent Adkins who drove a bus for 17 years adds that drivers love serving children and often go the extra mile. “In Floyd County, we had one particular driver that after making his run on a Friday evening discovered a bag of food that was sent home with a student but had been forgotten on the bus. This driver got in his personal vehicle and took it to the child’s home. Because he worried the child wouldn’t have food.”

Fallsburg Elementary Principal Sarah Bowen took all her teachers on a school bus tour of Lawrence County so they would see the routes and where their students lived

The Floyd District has 66 full-time drivers and approximately 62 percent of their students ride a bus.

During winter months, the drivers must get up even earlier to warm the buses.  They often encounter bad road conditions alerting the schools and county officials.  Drivers face special changes in the mountains and hollows of eastern Kentucky with narrow roads and bridges made more hazardous with flooding and snow and ice on the north side of hills which melt more slowly.

Breathitt bus drivers in front of route map(L-R) Bobby Fraley, Scott Spenser, and Scotty Spicer

Bus drivers are really “unsung heroes” for the districts.  And, they can be real heroes as happened during the first week of school in Lee County.  The Lee County Emergency Management reports that bus driver Norman Miller, who is also a Tri-Community fireman, noticed a fire on the front porch of a mobile home during his route.

He stopped the bus and followed the proper procedures to maintain the safety of the few children on the bus. He called the school district and requested the fire department be notified. He banged on the door to wake the sleeping occupants and used a water hose to put out most of the fire leaving just embers for the fire department.  The emergency management staff stated that “Miller’s actions not only saved the mobile home but most likely saved the lives of the occupants inside.”

Lee County Superintendent Sarah Wasson who served as the district’s transportation director prior to becoming the superintendent says, “Bus drivers are positive examples and role models for our students.

Millers’ students were able to see him model care and compassion not only when he saved the family from harm but also when he considered the safety of his precious cargo by placing the oldest student at the front of the bus to monitor the younger students. These kinds of responsible actions instill hope in our children.”

“I love kids,” says Breathitt driver Kaylia Banks in her fourth year on the roads. “I enjoy making the ride a positive experience, so their day starts off right. And, they make my day with their smiles and thanks. I appreciate the little gifts they give including homemade cards, notes, and pictures.”

Banks and the other drivers interviewed stated that discipline can be a challenge, but it is very doable by setting expectations in the beginning. “Many of the kids come from difficult places so I try to show them I care while letting them know what I expect,” explains Breathitt driver Bobby Fraley. “I always say good morning. I enjoy helping kids.  As a former coach, I enjoy taking students to the athletic events.”

Wolfe County schools converted decommissioned school bus into bookmobile and community outreach vehicle.

Breathitt driver Scott Spencer echoed the thoughts of the drivers saying that the responsibilities can be nerve-wracking at times.  “It is very satisfying hearing the kids say thanks for the ride.” Both Fraley and Spencer’s routes are about 40 miles in length with their day starting around 6 a.m.

Breathitt bus driving trainer Scotty Spicer drove for 17 years and has continued his work in Breathitt busing work for 27 years. He states he sought the job in 1990-91 because of the absence of other jobs in the area. “I love the job because I enjoy helping young people.”

Breathitt County has struggled to get drivers because their entire day is tied up between the morning and afternoon routes and the CDL requirement, says transportation director Steve Banks.  Many have driven in the past to get the health care benefits and with insurance availability in recent years due to the federal Affordable Health Care Act, drivers have been lost, Banks said. The district has 26 fulltime and two part-time drivers, Banks adds.

The Breathitt district tries to keep their buses for 14 years, Banks says.

The Wolfe County district converted a school bus ready to be decommissioned into an innovative bookmobile which goes into the community offering books, information about health and the district, food backpacks for weekends, and plans to have chrome book computers for use, states Wolfe Superintendent Kenny Bell.  “District bus drivers help with the program donating their time as well as funds.  Our drivers are very student and community-minded,” Bell adds.

Kentucky needs to aggressively recruit quality bus drivers as it is ramping up for teachers.  Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis announced this summer the Go Teach KY initiative to   address the teacher shortage affecting Kentucky by highlighting the pathways to alternative teaching certifications. Kentucky has seen a shortage of teachers as there have been more than 5,000 job openings for educators since the beginning of 2019 and critical shortages for special education, career, and world language teachers.

The school bus driver shortage has been in the making for several years and needs the same attention, a local superintendent advised.

Ron Daley is the strategic partner lead for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative a consortium of 23 school districts in eastern Kentucky.

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