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A month to honor, thank school bus drivers

ASHLEY SERVANT HAS been a school bus driver with Choice Transportation for four years and calls it “the most rewarding job I have ever had.” She drives Iron Mountain School District routes. (Jim Paul/Daily News photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — February is Love the Bus Month, a time to salute the people who get children to and from school safely.

Gaylord Scott of Florence, Wis., and Ashley Servant of Iron Mountain drive for Choice Transportation. Both say the children make the job worthwhile and is why they stay with it.

“Watching them grow up, to be a part of their lives for as long as they go to your school and to watch them flourish and become their own people, it is absolutely amazing,” Servant said.

“All the kids know who I am, they are amazing,” Scott said. “I have had them from grade school to high school and all their brothers and sisters. You get to know their families; they all come from different walks of life and they all have their character.”

Servant has driven Iron Mountain School District routes for more than four years. She likes the hours of driving a school bus — she is able to get home within a half-hour of her 13-year-old daughter getting home.

Servant works in construction as a roofer in the summer months and needed a job to do the rest of the year. She also said a bad automobile accident several years ago left her afraid to drive, so she took the job as a way to challenge herself to get over her fears.

Before getting behind the wheel of a school bus, Servant had never driven anything bigger than a pickup truck.

In the winter, Servant is up at 4:30 a.m. each day and to the bus garage by 5:30 a.m.

There is much work to be done before the bus can even leave the yard. It must be inspected for any damage and all fluids, brakes and lights checked. Servant does pre-trip inspection for several of the buses to help other drivers.

Servant has a morning run in which she transports more than 50 children to school. The rest of the day is spent driving students to and from the high school to the Dickinson-Iron Intermediate School District’s technical education center, a total of five runs a day.

Scott worked for many years as an over-the-road truck driver before retiring. He took up school bus driving 10 years ago as a way to earn extra money. His routes are with the Norway Vulcan School District.

On some weeks, Scott’s schedule is similar to Servant’s — he does morning inspection, takes about 50 children to school and then shuttles students to the technical education center. On other weeks, Scott goes home for awhile before going back for the afternoon run.

For both Scott and Servant, the safety of the children is the biggest concern. They want people to pay attention to a bus with its lights on and not pass on the right when the red lights are on.

Although she’s had no accidents yet, Servant last year had to grab a little girl at the bottom of the stairs to avoid her being struck by a car that passed on the right despite the bus’ flashing lights. Scott’s bus last year got hit going around a corner by a sliding car; luckily, no one was hurt.

“The red lights are on but for some reason they do not see them; people are not observant enough,” Scott said. “You see a lot of almost-accidents.”

Another reason to salute bus drivers is they are in short supply these days. Many school districts and transportation companies are forced to adjust routes to deal with the shortages.

According to Wisconsin Public Radio, that state has 18% fewer school bus drivers than just 15 years ago — a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum found the number of licensed school bus drivers fell by 3,062 from 2007 to 2022.

According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, nearly a fifth of school bus drivers are age 65 years or older, as it becomes a popular choice of retirees to earn extra income.

Judy Wolf, transportation director for the School District of Niagara, said that the district lost several longtime drivers to retirement when the drivers could no longer pass the required Department of Transportation physical.

Wolf also said new laws and regulations make it difficult to get potential hires licensed.

And it being a part-time job can discourage some, Wolf said, but it is ideal for retirees or stay-at-home parents.

Wolf encourages people to consider giving school bus driving a try.

“It is not as hard as you think,” she said. “So many people say to me, ‘Oh, I could never do that, I could never handle 50 kids.'” The kids are not jumping all around or acting all crazy like people would think, it is very rewarding.”

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the number of bus drivers as well, WPR reported. Many school bus drivers were forced to use their commercial drivers licenses to find other driving jobs when schools were closed for in-person instruction.

Locally, Craig Baumler, owner of Choice Transportation, which provides service to the Iron Mountain and Norway school districts, said the company has been able to keep drivers. Many of Baumler’s 13 drivers have been with him since he started school bus service six years ago and his limousine and charter service four years earlier.

“We pay our drivers well and treat them like family,” Baumler said.

Choice Transportation is an approved training center as well, so Baumler is able to hire inexperienced drivers and help them get their commercial driver’s license.

School bus drivers get online or classroom instruction and behind-the-wheel training. A potential school bus driver must also pass a DOT physical and a thorough background check.

Servant recommends becoming a school bus driver.

“It is one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever had,” Servant said. “It might be a lot of aggravation, but it is truly a blessing in disguise and people really do not see that part of it very often.”

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