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Underappreciated but much needed

By WILLIAM PAINE

willilam.paine@southwesttimes.com

Some time ago, Anne Vaughan, an employee of the Pulaski County school system came to The Southwest Times in hopes of getting some recognition for the good work done by her fellow employees.

The Pulaski County School Board deals with a wide variety of topics at their meetings. One can count on certain subjects being discussed on a regular basis, like problems with attendance or how a particular school building’s roof leaks.

Though these issues come up frequently, the topic of school bus drivers comes up, without fail, at every meeting. School board members don’t discuss bus routes or problems with the bus drivers, rather they talk about how many there are and if there are enough bus drivers to drive all the county’s kids to school.

One way or another, the county seems to get the kids to school but keeping enough school bus drivers behind the wheel seems to be an ongoing issue.

Bus drivers are, perhaps, amongst the less appreciated school system employees. Teachers are always a big topic as they’re front and center of children’s education experience.

School bus drivers are similar to many other occupations in that one doesn’t think about them until something goes wrong. But things rarely go wrong and when they do, it’s rarely the fault of the school bus driver.

Unlike teachers, administrators or janitors, school bus drivers in Pulaski county are considered part time employees. That’s because they work about two hours every morning picking up children and two hours dropping them off in the afternoon; though exceptionally long routes may take more time.

This leaves approximately four hours between shifts but though they aren’t on the clock, they do need to be available.

Anne Vaughan has been driving school buses since 1985.

“If something happens, you’ve got to be ready to go,” said Vaughan. “We went out to a nursing home one time because of a fire and we loaded them up on the buses. There were also times when we needed to get the kids because they called school early for heat. We’ve even had to come get them because of bomb threats to the school.”

Vaughan is a woman of slight stature with a pleasant yet determined demeanor.

Through the years, Vaughan has driven a few different types of buses and faced challenges from inclement weather to unruly passengers.

For 25 years she drove a large bus which held as many as 73 students but something happened to change that.

“I had this one girl who kept testing me,” Vaughan explained. “She hung out the windows. She threatened me. She was taken off the bus a dozen different times. At the end of that year, instead of going on nerve pills, I decided to give it up so I turned in my resignation.”

A couple of weeks later the veteran school bus driver was offered another less stressful route, which involved taking one student to Wytheville and back. This experience, though notable, has been more the exception than the rule.

“You’re able to talk to some of the kids when they’re sitting pretty close,” said Vaughan. “The good ones outnumber the bad ones but you learn the names of the bad ones first.”

She has driven both long and short routes carrying pre-K students to high schoolers.

“The fourth and fifth-graders seem like they’re at that middle age,” said Vaughan. “They can act like grownups one day and then babies the next. You never know how they’re going to act from day to day. You’re always waiting to see, ‘Well, how old are you today?’”

Multitasking comes with the job, as does the mirror that allows the drivers to see what her passengers are up to.

“I can see exactly what they’re doing back there and I’m looking at the road also,” said Anne. “Then you’ve got to watch your side mirrors and the ones at your fingers. You’ve got to be aware of everything around you.”

One of those things she and other drivers are conditioned to be aware of is vehicles that don’t stop when the school bus lights are flashing. The law requires motorists to come to a full stop in both directions of travel when the lights flash red on a school bus. Vaughn says she’s frequently seen motorists drive past her as children are coming on or coming off the bus; even as the lights flash and the driver side stop sign is out.

Most routes are designed so that children don’t have to cross the road to get home. Four and five-year-old children must have a parent present before they’re allowed to be dropped off.

“Some still have to cross the road and we’ve had some near bad situations,” Vaughan related. “I’ve seen near misses on more than one occasion. People don’t pay attention. They’re texting or talking or in their own little world.”

Then there’s the weather.

“Probably two or three years ago we got caught out in the snow,” said Vaughan. “I had got all my kids home but I hadn’t taken my aid (para professional) home up on Scott Street, which is straight up. So I let her off and I just floored it. I came up Windfield Circle onto Pepper’s Ferry and just kept on getting. Picking up those kids, there’s all kinds of situations you get into.”

Owing to the work schedule and the fact that school bus drivers receive no benefits, many, if not most are retirees. Anne Vaughan started driving a school bus well before it was time for her to retire.

“My husband’s been gone 26 years and I’ve supported myself all of that time,” said Vaughan. “So, Social Security is all I’ve got to look forward to right now after 33 years on the job. I should have thought 33 years ago to get a job with some retirement but hindsight is 20/20.”

Anne was recently told that her poor eyesight would prohibit her from driving a school bus. Even so, she applied to be what’s known as a para professional, who are aids that are required to ride along with very young or disabled children.

Likely recognizing her long service to the system, Anne was hired as a bus para professional this school year.

Before the school year began, Pulaski School System operation manager Jess Shull gave Safe Bus Driver awards to those who have been accident free the previous year.

These awards are given out every year in a show of appreciation for those with a safe driving record.

Anne was there, at Critzer Elementary School, with the county’s 61 other school bus drivers, all of whom received the Safe Bus Driver Award for their service in the previous school year.

Among those drivers were quite a few with long histories of safely driving the children of Pulaski County to school and back.

Some of the longest serving bus drivers in Pulaski County include Jodie Cardoza (25 years), Roberta Saunders (27 years), Mike Coleman (29 years), Mary Nester (29 years), David Butcher (32 years), Carolyn Hager (33 years), Carl Yost (35 years), Rodney Farmer (36 years), Gary Roseberry (37 years), William Jones (38 years), Linda Yost (40 years), Mary Montgomery (44 years) and the bus driver with the most experience of all, Dalford Phillips with 52 years of school bus driving service.

The Southwest Times wishes to recognize and thank all school bus drivers for their efforts through the years as they have safely transported Pulaski County’s children to school and back home again.

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