BY JARED FIELDS
Back to school means back behind the wheel of a 40-foot-long yellow bus for David Powell, who will be in charge of safely transporting 50 or more students 150-200 miles round trip a day, five days a week.
When the first day of school began August 19 for the Burnet school district, 30-plus bus drivers boarded their vehicles before sunrise to take students to their campuses. Every minute of every day those students are on those buses, drivers must maintain control of their vehicles and their passengers.
“You better go into this job with your eyes wide open in terms of what it takes if you’re going to be a good bus driver, a safe bus driver,” said Powell, who started his second year as a driver for the Burnet Consolidated Independent School District.
That sobering responsibility is something Powell had to consider when he took on the job. In his first year, he saw two incidents involving school buses that weren’t the bus driver’s fault but still could have endangered the young riders.
“You better be mentally prepared to accept that responsibility,” Powell said. “Because I’m putting myself in that driver’s shoes and if that bus is on its side and there’s kids in that bus, am I mentally prepared to handle that?”
Making sure Powell and all the other drivers in the district are trained, licensed, and ready for that responsibility is the job of BCISD Transportation Director Josh Albro. In all, the district services 31 routes covering a total of 700 square miles — about 500,000 miles every year. The people driving those routes can’t slack off a single minute when on the job.
“There’s never a time as a bus driver that you can be complacent because we’re hauling kids,” Albro said. “We’re hauling folks that we can’t replace.”
Organizing a smooth day on the road takes preparation and team work. With so many routes, someone is almost always going to be sick or unable to drive on any given school day.
Bus drivers also face rainy days that close low-water crossings, icy days that slow schedules, and driving in traffic that doesn’t always put school bus safety first when in a rush to get somewhere.
That’s not a luxury bus drivers have.
“Our primary goal and everything we do is about keeping our kids safe,” Albro said.
That includes daily, state-mandated pre-trip and post-trip inspections of each bus as well as continuing training.
“The goal is to give (drivers) so much information that you know exactly what you’re supposed to do before it happens, and you’re prepared when it does happen,” Albro said.
Ongoing maintenance is also critical in keeping buses running with good tires always filled with air and gas gauges on the full mark, which is the job of BCISD lead mechanic Guy Enjada, who’s also a substitute driver. Sure, it’s hard work, he said, but the stress and responsibility are overcome by the positive aspects of the job: the passengers.
“I enjoy working with the kids,” he said. “Just seeing the kids at the end of the day or picking them up in the morning, you’ve got to love kids to be in this type of work.”
For Powell, who drives a bus for students with special needs, the connections with his passengers are the best part of the job.
“People say, ‘Well, I made a difference in this child’s life.’ Maybe you do or maybe you don’t, I don’t know, but they definitely make a difference in my life,” Powell said. “It makes my life more rewarding.”
The time spent in school buses for some drivers and students rivals that of teachers, especially for youths in the upper grades.
“I’ve seen kids that won’t talk at school, but if you get them on a bus, they’ll tell you their life story,” Albro said.
Whether a student says something that needs to be passed along as a serious matter or is simply sharing their passion about an ant farm, kids on a bus open up to drivers in a different way than to other school personnel.
“They will tell you some stuff they wouldn’t tell other people, there’s no doubt about it,” Powell said. “I guess it’s because we’re not in there making them do homework. All we ask them to do is sit down and be quiet on the bus as much as possible. We do it in a nice way, so we’re probably not the enemy to them.”
At the end of the day, Albro sees those opportunities as a behind-the-scenes way to make an impact on a student’s life: recognized or not.
“That’s why you’re in this … you get to impact peoples’ lives,” Albro said. “That’s what it’s all about for us. That’s the best part about it by far.”