The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round
There is no summer vacation for the unsung heroes in the Brunswick County Schools transportation department.
What do school buses do in the summer? Of Brunswick County Schools’ 177 activity, special needs and regular school buses, 40 or more hit the road in the summer, delivering students to and from special programs at schools around the county. It is also a busy time of year for the 25 maintenance employees who thoroughly clean, inspect and maintain the buses.
Bobby Taylor joined Brunswick County Schools in 2001 and has been the director of transportation since 2008. The Rocky Mount native is happy to sing the praises of his entire staff of nearly 325, who are intently focused on safety. “From our drivers to our mechanics, safety is our priority,” Taylor says.
“During the summer our drivers undergo 30 hours of training, and every tire, every seat, every cushion and every window of every bus is inspected,” he says. “Each bus goes through a 140-point inspection.”
In fact, the school buses go through much stricter inspections than any other registered vehicle on the road. “The state entrusts us to do our own inspections because we are are so very thorough,” Taylor says. “We have to be — these buses and drivers transport the most valuable assets in Brunswick County — our 12,000 students.”
Considering the wear and tear on the buses, the numbers are staggering. On regular school days, 300 drivers and transportation safety assistants (TSAs) drive an average total of 17,000 miles per day — or more than three million miles per year. This does not include field trips and weeknight and weekend sporting activities.
Maintenance personnel are year-round employees and are vital to keeping the wheels on the road, whereas most of the drivers are 10-month employees. “Many of these drivers overlap within the school system,” Taylor says. They are dual employees and serve as teaching assistants, custodians and cafeteria staff. “This allows them to receive the full benefits for their 10 months of employment,” he adds.
Brunswick County is small enough that many of the drivers are related. “We have brother and sister teams, cousins and even husbands and wives who drive,” Taylor says.
Miranda Bryant is the data manager at Supply Elementary School. She has also been a bus driver since she was hired as a teaching assistant at Union Elementary in 2001. Even though she works in the office, she is occasionally called on to drive a bus for field trips or as a substitute. “I keep up my license because I love driving the kids,” she says. Her son, Scott Bryant, drives as well. “He wanted a second job. Driving a school bus was the perfect opportunity for him.”
The bus drivers become like a second family for some of the kids too. “They are the first ones from the school system to greet the children in the morning and the last to see them when they are delivered home,” Taylor says. “In reality, our drivers hold these children in the palms of their hands. Yes, there are challenges, but our drivers love the students — or they would not stay in the business.”
Like 17-year driving veteran Bryant, many of the drivers have nearly 20 years of service.
The department’s safety record is fantastic, mostly because of the more than 30 hours of annual training each driver and TSA receives. Twice a year the buses are taken to the schools so drivers and students can practice back door emergency evacuation procedures. “The main goal is always that the children are safe and most importantly feel safe,” Taylor says.
Driving a bus is not as easy as you may think. “It is a complex system,” Taylor says. “We have to protect the students.”
In fact, just last year, the department instituted new safety protocol for drivers who pick up students from the stop that is on the side of a highway.
“One passenger stop can be unbelievable,” Taylor shares. “Imagine pulling up to the stop, checking traffic in all directions, turning on warning light as you approach the stop and counting the students standing there. Then come to a complete stop, do a hand signal to keep the children at bay while you open the door, shift into neutral and apply the emergency brake.” This is when a stop light comes up, lights come on, and stop arm comes out.
“Then, after checking traffic in all directions once again, you must give a hand signal to point into the direction the kids are to walk, then you must count them again as they get on the bus.” Taylor is not done yet. “Then imagine watching the students in the rearview mirror as they sit down, before you can take off the emergency brake and put it into drive, while you are checking traffic to ensure it is safe to go — and this is only for one stop.”
One bus driver is responsible for up to 66 students on one route. “That is the same as managing three classes in a 10 foot by 40 foot box with your back toward the students,” he says.
“Don’t forget it is early to rise for the drivers as well,” he adds. The first buses out of the lot deliver high school students to COAST and the Early College — the first pick up is at 5:35 am. In contrast, the last buses deliver students home from the Communities in Schools (CIS) after school program as late as 7:30 pm.
This spring, two local drivers took second and fourth places in the District Four Rodeo. “Both had to answer safety and regulatory questions and of course drive the bus,” Taylor says. Donnie Frink took second place and Teresa James took fourth. Both drivers move onto the state level later this summer.
“I love the rodeos, but I have not parallel parked a bus,” Taylor says with a laugh.
Joking aside, Taylor takes the work he and his entire team do very seriously. All of them recognize the great responsibility they share. Needless to say it is a job well done. “We know we can go from a hero to a zero in seconds if there is a problem,” Taylor says. “We prefer to remain the unsung heroes.”
Did you know?
During Hurricane Florence, 35 employees drove 25 buses taking residents to the shelters throughout the county.
Dozens of bus drivers volunteer with Brunswick County Emergency Services and are included in the radiological preparedness plan to evacuate residents in the event of an emergency.
Remember: Never pass a stopped school bus.