Brian Sullivan: Bus drivers in the eye of the storm
PITTSFIELD - Talk about your cattle drive between Laredo and San Antonio, let's give a holler to the cowboys and cowgirls of Pittsfield Public Schools who transport about 3,600 of our students to and from their respective schools on a daily basis, and do so 99.9 percent of the time without injury or incident.
Budget concerns aside, I'm sure even city schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless would agree that these people perform a service critical to the overall daily education equation, and do so in the shadows of efforts provided by teachers, custodians and general administration staff.
I would be surprised if McCandless didn't agree that they are both unsung and perhaps even underpaid. Well, like I said, budgets aside.
In a survey completed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics about five years ago, it was determined that there are about 500,000 public school bus drivers nationally. The mean salary - and I don't use that word in a tongue-incheek manner - was about $14 an hour - with Massachusetts, in fact, showing up with states like California and New York in the top five for pay.
There was, though, a strangely diverse differential between some of the top hourly salaries and the bottom tier. Some states actually paid close to minimum wage. The BLS survey pointed out that within each state there is pay variance between the school districts, and that makes sense.
Our bigger cities, no doubt, offer challenges for the drivers that rural towns wouldn't offer. But then again, transporting a bus full of kids along the twists and tight turns of a snowy and icy road in the country can't be any more comfortable than getting those kids home on a hot June afternoon in the Bronx.
And that's no slam on the Bronx. I'm just telling it like it is.
I was happy to read in The Eagle this week that the city had decided to purchase a new fleet of school buses in the form of a lease. It prompted a call to public schools Financial Director Kristen Behnke, who on a late Tuesday afternoon with a pending winter storm knocking on our door, graciously accepted the call.
Trust me, Behnke had better things to do - she is at the hub of much of the decision-making about bus operations and school postponements - than to pass the time with me. Even as we spoke, a member of the state Highway Department checked in to see if city schools would be called off on Wednesday.
The Highway Department, Behnke said, changes their plowing schedule and agenda if they know well enough in advance that schools will be closed and the buses won't be on the streets.
Behnke said that 43 new buses will replace 52 old ones. That, of course, begged some obvious questions. But Behnke, ever patient, gracious and polite, explained that schedule modifications have already been made to accommodate fewer buses and that all seemed to be ready to go for the fall of 2014.
There are, Behnke added, 46 drivers employed by the city. And I'm guessing that many of them can't wait to get behind the wheel of a new yellow school bus.
"They have to be yellow," Behnke said. "That's the law."
A driving training program will be offered, she added, and the number to call if interested is (413) 499-9525.
City lifers or longtime residents know this story. An overnight winter storm would shut down all schools in Berkshire County. In Pittsfield, families would huddle around the radio in the morning to hear what they already knew was coming. After the voice gave a long list of schools that would not open, there would be a pause. "But," and then a dramatic pause for effect, "there will be school in Pittsfield."
You could almost hear the collective air go out of the city. I don't know who had it worse in those days. I remember as a walker, having to pick my way carefully through mounds of snow and ice to reach my destination. The bus drivers- I don't know how they did it- somehow got to their buses and made their rounds, although sometimes a little late.
Those were pensive moments for elementary school children, waiting amid snow piles taller than they were with 16 scarves wrapped around their necks. We're now more apt to err on the side of caution, and that's OK. But it still throws many families into a schedule snafu.
Through it all the school bus drivers prevail. Their mail lives and breathes, and it does get delivered. I think these people are heroes. I really do.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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