Every day, when she climbs into the driver’s seat, she is all too aware her job is to keep the more than 60 children behind her safe.
Starting the first day of school, Darlene Sidebottom works to create a sense of order on her school bus.
The Greenwood bus driver talks to the children about the rules and what they can expect on her bus. She takes quick action when a rule is broken, ranging from a verbal warning to requiring students to sit up front to getting their principal involved.
But she also praises the students when they are doing something right, like waiting at their bus stop when she shows up or being respectful to each other.
Sidebottom also knows she is the first face most kids see in the morning after their parents and the last one they see before they go home for the day.
“Kids, parents, they all have a lot on their plate, so I try to keep it positive,” she said.
Sidebottom is one of the more than 270 bus drivers who transport the county’s 26,000 students to school and home every day. Each year, taxpayers spend more than $12 million to pay for the cost of drivers, buses, fuel and maintaining each of those buses.
And each school year, officials have to map out the routes their buses will take, adding in any new students and make sure they have enough people to drive.
In past years, that has been a challenge, and some school districts have had to ask mechanics and other employees licensed to drive a bus to get behind the wheel when they are shortstaffed. Some school districts have looked at how they can recruit and retain their drivers, including by raising the pay.
At Clark-Pleasant schools, drivers earn a competitive wage, starting at $21 per hour, with a maximum of $30 per hour, after the rate was raised this year, transportation director Bob Downin said.
Franklin schools recently raised the pay of its bus drivers to up to $99 per day, a 14 percent increase. That increase was especially important after last school year, when the school district was consistently short on drivers, superintendent David Clendening said.
School officials and drivers got together to discuss what could be done to make the job more appealing. A pay increase was one of the top suggestions, and the school district had not raised drivers’ pay in quite some time, Clendening said.
“We have shown them that we value them, they are a key part of what we do,” Clendening said.
At Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson schools, retaining bus drivers hasn’t been an issue. There, drivers are paid $81 to $88 per day and receive benefits, including health and life insurance and sick and personal days, as long as they work enough hours to qualify, transportation director Jim Singleton said.
But pay isn’t the only reason why some drivers don’t stick with the job.
Greenwood school bus driver Kathy Kimbley also thinks some shy away from the job because of all the requirements, including multiple tests and certifications and the cost to get them, she said. When Kimbley first started as a driver nearly 40 years ago, she filled out some paperwork, went to a gravel drive where she proved she could drive a manual transmission and took a written test to get her commercial drivers license, she said.
The job also requires you to be able to both watch the road and keep order on a bus of 60 or more students, and it can be stressful when there are that many, Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school bus driver Tammy Willey said.
Willey’s route takes her onto state highways, and making sure the kids are behaving and are safe can be a challenge, especially when there are no other adults on the bus to help you, she said.
The discipline part of the job can be intimidating to people, Sidebottom said.
“The students are trying you and challenging you and seeing if you’re like their mothers or how many times you are going to say ‘sit down,'” she said.
Kimbley tells other drivers not to be mean but also not to set out to be the students’ friend. You must lay out the rules and then be prepared to enforce them, she said.
“And they will test you,” Kimbley said.
“It’s like kids at home. If you don’t take care of it right away, it spreads.”
Nineveh-Hensley-Jackson school bus driver Lisa Bradley always tries to drive the point of safety to the kids, telling them everything she has to watch out for on the bus, including making sure other drivers stop when she is picking up and dropping off kids. She can’t always be looking in her mirrors to make sure students are behaving because she needs to watch the road.
“I don’t think they know the big responsibility we have when we are driving,” Bradley said.
“I try to express to them safety; you are not only kid on the bus.”
But the drivers all also said another requirement of the job is that they enjoy the students, and try to connect with them.
Sidebottom drove a route in a Greenwood apartment complex where a man was shot and killed more than a year ago. She immediately worried about the kids from her route and hoped they were all OK.
Drivers and aides said they worry about the kids from their route when they aren’t at school or when they seem down that day.
“There are nights where you go to bed and think about those children. It’s a special bond,” Greenwood school bus aide Gloria Schaub said.
Here is a look at local school’s transportation departments:
Number of drivers: 73
Pay: $22.14 per hour
Number of openings: 1 driver, 3 substitutes
Number of drivers: 73
Pay: $21 per hour
Openings: Hiring substitute drivers
Number of routes: 3
Pay: Not available
Number of openings: Seeking substitutes, and if another driver was hired, route times could be shortened.
Number of drivers: 64
Pay: $40.50 – $99 per day
Number of openings: Accepting applications for substitute drivers
Number of drivers: 34
Pay: $57.79 per day part-time; $84.06 per day full-time
Number of openings: Hiring substitute drivers
Number of drivers: 26
Pay: $81 – $88 per day
Number of openings: None