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MFISD bus drivers make sure students are off to good start; more needed

Marble Falls Independent School District transportation director George Hamilton knows the joys and value of being a bus driver — he started as one himself. The district is looking for more bus drivers. While a commercial driver’s license is required, the transportation department can help people down the path to earning one and then becoming a member of the team that helps kids get to school on the right foot and with a smile on their faces. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Marble Falls Independent School District transportation director George Hamilton knows the joys and value of being a bus driver — he started as one himself. The district is looking for more bus drivers. While a commercial driver’s license is required, the transportation department can help people down the path to earning one and then becoming a member of the team that helps kids get to school on the right foot and with a smile on their faces. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

DANIEL CLIFTON • EDITOR

MARBLE FALLS — Just over two decades ago, Nelda Henley did something she wasn’t sure was the best decision. She took the wheel of a Marble Falls Independent School District bus. Her initial route as the driver for special-needs students took her across the district.

“I probably went from no commercial driver’s license to driving a bus in a few days,” she said. “But I have no regrets on the past 20-plus years. I love it.”

Henley is one of the handful of people in MFISD and other area districts who have the ability to set the tone for a student’s day. Henley, who is now a MFISD assistant transportation director, agrees that bus drivers get students to school, but they also do something else.

“As a bus driver, you really do have an impact on how kids start their day,” she said. “Something as simple as a smile and ‘good morning’ can really make a difference. Even if, at first, a child doesn’t really acknowledge your ‘good morning,’ within a few days or a week, they do. And, you know, they appreciate that.”

MFISD transportation director George Hamilton agreed.

“A bus driver is the first person these kids see on their way to school,” he said. “And I tell our bus drivers that they can make a difference in what type of day the kids have. It’s quite a rewarding job.”

Hamilton, who also started his career as a bus driver, is looking for a few more smiling faces to take the seat behind the wheel. In May, eight of his longtime bus drivers retired. He’s been able to hire several new ones, but he still hopes to get a few more applicants in the process.

Ideally, a candidate would come with his or her commercial driver’s license (CDL), but Hamilton said not having one shouldn’t stop someone from applying.

“We’ll help you out through the process,” he said.

Becoming a bus driver involves a series of steps, including background and fingerprint checks and Texas Education Agency training. And, of course, MFISD training.

But the biggest hurdle a person might face is getting a CDL. The initial stage is book study and a written test.

“Then, they’ll get 20 hours behind the wheel with one of our trainers,” Hamilton said. “Once they get that, then they take the commercial driving test in Austin. And that’s probably the biggest thing we face because, right now, it’s about a three- to four-week wait to get in for that test.”

The CDL market is quite competitive right now as the oil industry and related businesses snatched up many of the drivers with higher pay. Hamilton knows a school district can’t compete with those wages, but a school bus driver has several other benefits.

Henley pointed out that one of the biggest pluses for her was the split shifts. She could drive a bus in the morning and afternoon and fit another job in between. It’s something other drivers take advantage of.

If bus drivers are parents of schoolchildren, the schedule works out well for them.

“We have drivers, they bring their kids in the morning with them, and (the kids) can ride with them or they can get on a bus that goes to their school,” Henley said. “We work with parents.”

Hamilton added that the MFISD school board and administration are very supportive of the transportation department and bus drivers and have worked to give the drivers better pay.

But both Henley and Hamilton pointed out that some of the benefits aren’t measured in salary.

“I still have (former riders) who come up and hug me on the neck,” Henley said. “They remember you. And they are thankful for what you did for them.”

On their routes, bus drivers often see challenges students face, things teachers and administrators might not notice. Henley recalled one kindergartner who would get on the bus and sit behind her.

“I’d hear his stomach growling,” she said. “He was just hungry.”

She made sure the child had something to eat.

“It seems simple,” Hamilton said, “but something like that, that child probably did better in class because he wasn’t hungry. Bus drivers get to know their kids in a way teachers and other school staff don’t.”

Though he might start the school year short a driver or two, Hamilton isn’t worried about any of the 41 routes that cover 262 square miles. He and his office staff are all qualified to drive buses.

“We’ll jump in where we’re needed,” he said. “We’ll have all the routes covered.”

Anyone interested in learning more about becoming a bus driver can go to marblefallsisd.org or call (830) 798-2300 on weekdays for more information.

daniel@thepicayune.com