Columnists

Want to drive a school bus?

Have you ever wanted to “test drive” a school bus?

I got to do just that on Saturday during Noblesville Schools’ “test drive a school bus” event.

The three-hour open house-style event was open to the public as an opportunity for people to learn more about driving a school bus for the district, which currently has seven school-bus driver job openings.

Turnout was really great on Saturday, when attendees were able to get behind the wheel of a school bus in the safety of Noblesville Schools’ Transportation Department parking lot and learn what it’s like to be a school bus driver.

Upon my arrival at 9:09 a.m. Saturday at the Transportation Department — the bus garage on Hague Road next to Noblesville West Middle School — I was greeted by a stay-at-home mom-turned-school bus driver who has been driving a bus for just two weeks.

Nicole Miller, 38, has three sons, ages 16, 8 and 6; and a daughter, 12. What interested her about being a school bus driver?

“I had been a stay-at-home mom for 10 years. I wanted to go back to work, but I wanted a flexible job where I was off during breaks with my kids, and that I didn’t have to find a sitter for the little ones. And I had the flexibility of doing doctor’s appointments and things that children need taken care of, orthodontist appointments, without having to take time off of work,” she said.

Miller rises on school days just after 5 a.m. and leaves for the bus garage at 6:20 a.m. She picks up her first elementary student at 7:15 a.m., and gets to Promise Road Elementary School by 7:35 a.m. “It’s a very short route.” Then she has a break until 8:04 a.m. and just waits in her bus in the elementary parking lot until she starts her route for Noblesville East Middle School, where she arrives at about 8:25 a.m. She drives her bus back to the Transportation Department by 8:45 a.m. and gets home by 9 a.m.

In the afternoon, she leaves her house at 1:30 p.m. to be back to the Transportation Department and on the road by 2 p.m. to get to Promise Road by 2:20 p.m. Students are released at 2:25 p.m., and she finishes the route by 2:55 p.m. Then sometimes she goes home briefly before driving her bus to NEMS for 3:40 p.m. release. She drops off her last student at 4:11 p.m. and is back to the Transportation Department by 4:35 p.m. After that, she makes sure her bus is clean, and on Fridays, she fuels up for the next week.

In between morning and afternoon routes, she has 4-½ hours of downtime. As a mom, she’s a multi-tasker. She schedules her kids’ doctor and dentist appointments during that time. “I like to do arts and crafts, so I use it as my time, sometimes, if I don’t have any laundry or cleaning to get done,” Miller said. She also prepares dinner.

“It’s really nice, because I get that stay-at-home option but I still have a job.”

Miller leaves home every morning for her bus route about 30 minutes before her two youngest sons get on the bus; her 16-year old gets his brothers on the bus before he takes the high-school bus. Her middle-school daughter sometimes rides with Mom on the school bus route to and from school because Miller drives to her daughter’s school.

The week before fall break in mid-October, the mom spent three weeks training, including a required eight hours of driving behind the wheel and learning the mechanics of the bus, before taking a test to get her required Commercial Driver’s License.

“And I had no background in any of that,” Miller said. “It was a lot for me.”

“This is really informative for me,” said Denene Miller, who attended the “test drive a school bus” event and listened to all of the information .

School board president and Noblesville retired pediatric dentist Dr. Joe Forgey and Hinkle Creek Elementary School principal Jack Lawrence were also in my driving group, test driving the district’s buses.

“I came out because I want to drive one …,” Forgey said.

“Why not?”

Brian Zachery, the district’s director of transportation, stood on the front steps of the bus, giving instructions and answering prospective bus driver questions.

Lawrence was the first to “test drive” a bus in my group.

“Jack’s going to start us off. The bus is in ‘Neutral.’ We don’t have ‘Park’ on the bus. It’s just ‘R,’ ‘N’ and ‘D (for Drive),’” Zachery said. “It’s in ‘Neutral,’ the parking brake is set. So he’s ready to start the bus.”

A self-confident Lawrence started the engine, let it run a minute and put his foot on the brake, released the parking brake, and then put the bus in gear. 

Lawrence, whose goal is to learn how to drive a bus “to do it to help out,” acknowledged that the district is “hurting on drivers.” He appeared at ease as he maneuvered the large, 38-foot-long vehicle around the Transportation Department bus parking lot. “I’ve driven a tractor, a John Deere. Does that count?” he asked, smiling.

“Brian was very good at explaining … The mirrors are very helpful…,” said Lawrence, who used the bus crossover mirrors to see the danger zones in front of the bus and to the left and right sides of the bus.

“Use your mirror to watch your back wheels around the corners,” Zachery instructed.

“You can see right underneath the bus with those crossover mirrors,” he said. “You can’t see it from the seat. So if there’s a student there or something in that area, the crossover mirror is what will pick that up. When you’re just driving down the road, we use that crossover mirror just to make sure we’re staying centered in our lane …A bus, when you get in behind the wheel, is going to feel like it’s too wide, but it’s not. But the crossover mirror is going to tell you where you’re sitting in the lane.”

Zachery instructed Lawrence to flip the switch to turn on the amber lights as he was pulling up to make a stop at a crosswalk during the “test drive.”

Besides Lawrence and Forgey, our group also had two other males and two females interested in a “test drive.”

As each new driver took a seat at the wheel, Zachery gave driving instructions and also shared knowledge and statistics, including the popularity of school bus-related infractions, mainly drivers not stopping for the school bus stop arm and some drivers who will drive around the bus when the stop arm is out. “If a (school bus) driver sees that happen, all they do is report it to me,” Zachery said. Being that there’s a video on each bus, there’s a little box on the side of a control panel that the bus driver can click the button and mark the camera location, so the infraction is easier to find on the video. “I can go right to where that occurred, so I don’t have to search for it,” he said.

The high-definition cameras can easily capture photos of license plates, even in the dark with the infrared camera. There are stop-arm cameras and some have dash cameras, as well. “We send three videos and a still picture to the Noblesville Police Department, and then they write the citation…” to the vehicle owner. There are also four cameras inside each bus recording video and audio.

Each person in the group took a turn driving around the parking lot.

When it was my turn to get in the driver’s seat, I had no idea of the ease and smoothness of the new school buses. (I just remember my old bus No. 15 when I was at Shenandoah High School in the 1970s and early ‘80s and how my bus driver would put his foot on the clutch and use the manual transmission stick shift on the floor and manually open the door to let students on and off the bus, which had no air conditioning.

Today, on the newest school buses at Noblesville, which are all air conditioned and have push-button 6-speed automatic transmission, drivers just press a button on the Shift Selector to put the bus in “Drive” or “Neutral” or “Reverse.” Another button opens the door for students to board. And another button turns on the amber lights and stop arm. (There are lots of buttons to the left of the driver to learn.)

When you turn on the left or right turn signal, the driver can easily see a view of traffic or students at the side of the bus thanks to electronic side cameras.

When you’re turning the steering wheel to go in a direction, you can easily see how close you are to the curb, or a vehicle next to you.

There’s a child-alert system with a buzzer so the driver must walk to the rear of the bus and deactivate the system before he or she can shut off the bus. There are many safety features on the bus, including a parking brake that prevents the bus from moving forward if gas is applied.

All of the bells and whistles on the new buses make drivers’ jobs so much easier.

But being a school bus driver is much more than just learning to drive a school bus.

Miller said, “Getting a good rapport with the kids is definitely necessary. Getting to know them helps. They seem to want to act better when they know that you know them.”

She has fun with her bus riders. “I do trivia with my elementary kids in the morning while we’re waiting for the school bell to ring.”

There are also times that she has to pull over her bus, with emergency flashers, and get up and rectify a situation and change seats for a student, she said.

Of the district’s 127 school buses, about 110 buses are running daily routes, two routes in the morning and two routes in the afternoon, totaling about 450 routes daily, Zachery said. Students are also transported from wherever they’re living, whether in Department of Child Services or homeless, plus buses take students to Indiana School for the Deaf and School for the Blind. (Teachers who drive the activity bus have a valid license, two hours of training and drug tests, but they don’t need a CDL.)

Training to be a school bus driver takes about 30 hours with pay during training, and a minimum of four observation hours with another driver. Starting pay is $109 per school day and nearly $120 per school day after the first 90 days, for 184 school days each year, with benefits, and sick and personal days that can accumulate.

Zachery has been Noblesville Schools’ transportation director for six years and jackwhas been in school transportation for 21 years. He was the transportation supervisor at Westfield Washington Schools before he became the director for Noblesville in 2015.

But he isn’t a daily school bus driver.

“I am a substitute driver just like everybody else in my building,” he said. “I normally am the last resort, but I drove a bus the other morning. And I want you to know I made it to school on time, and I made all of my stops.”

To apply for a job as a school bus driver, visit https://nschr1.nobl.k12.in.us/rDSOnlineApp/

-Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com