As a mother of three girls, Jerene Jones was struggling to balance family and work when first starting a career. Now, 23 years later, she is experiencing growth in both her family at home and at work.
When she was a child, Jones said her school bus driver was a personal hero by providing her with a safe haven every day. She relayed that her driver always seemed to know what was going on in her life, or on the “other side of the door.” The experience resonated with Jones, and she said it is why she is so passionate about her own career in student transportation.
She adamantly shared that the two loves of her life are her husband of 36 years, Wayne, and the school bus industry. She added that Wayne has graciously shared her with the world of pupil transportation. Perhaps even more than he should have, she admitted. The demands of student transportation on her personal lie are that great. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jones values her transportation family as if it’s her own. She said her district, Catoosa County Public Schools in Ringgold, Georgia, is perfectly sized. She knows what her employees are facing in their personal lives, which she said sometimes makes it difficult to lean on them for additional driving support.
“It’s not just a place to come and work. You get attached,” Jones explained. “You know your drivers, monitors. You know their families, You know what they are dealing with on their home side. You know the single mom that is taking care of four kids, the caregiver to the elderly parent, the one undergoing chemo/radiation between routes, or the one working two or three additional jobs to make ends meet. That’s in the back of your mind when you try to make these decisions. Is this going to make it harder on them?”
Jones said she is able to sympathize with her drivers because she’s been there. She knows what it is like to maneuver a 26,000-pound, 40-foot vehicle with over 70 students on board.
She also knows that amid all the other challenges in one’s life, “no other job in the world carries such a responsibility as to what we have when our hands grip that steering wheel, the responsibility of someone else’s child that cannot be replaced.
She added, “I emphasize to all who come through these doors seeking a position that you won’t get rich monetarily, but you will never do anything that carries such value.”
Jones started her career in March 1997. She was a stay-at-home Mom with three very active girls. She said she had tried before to balance work and family, but nothing seemed to stick. She added that childcare costs for three children were staggeringly high, even back then. Then a friend had offered her to “come and drive a bus.” And so she did.
She started as a sub driver for Catoosa County Public Schools but quickly moved to a full-time position as a route driver. From there, she has held several different positions throughout the school system, including at a local high school and in the central administration office. She landed again in the district’s transportation department back in 2007.
It was in 2012 that she obtained her driver trainer certification through the Georgia Department of Education. That fall, she also became the transportation manager at the district, and she’s been there ever since. In this role, she said she has grown the department’s safety and training programs, which started at the bare minimum when she was first hired on.
She is currently working on fall in-service sessions for all department employees. The training is aimed at emergency preparedness and includes basic first-aid certification, recertification for cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and intensified emergency evacuation drills.
Student safety is a continuing theme for her. On behalf of the entire Catoosa County transportation department, she accepted the 2018 School Bus Safety Award presented by Georgia State Superintendent Richard Woods.
That same year, Jones wrote a blog for School Transportation News on the safety chutes that she implemented to help ensure student safety when unloading.
Last year, she became a National Association of Pupil Transportation certified director of pupil transportation, which Jones said couldn’t mean any more to her than if it was a college diploma. The certification required seven years of professional development coursework and exams, but she added that she wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
“I made a decision early in life to not pursue college,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t change a thing because it would have made a different path with my children and where my life is at today. So, getting my NAPT certification this past November … that was a huge accomplishment to me. It carries the highest level of industry certification possible, and to me, it certifies what I love and what I know, and what I hope that I give my best to.”
Biggest Operational Change
Route coverage, Jones said, is one of her greatest work challenges. That along with the ongoing national driver shortage eats up a lot of her time.
A typical day for Jones begins at 3 a.m. with coffee in hand, answering text messages and phone calls. She said she uses this time to evaluate how many drivers she has for the day and what changes need to be made in order to transport all students to school on time.
“I start route coverage at 3 a.m. every morning and by 5 a.m. I can decide what I need to do and who I can do it with,” Jones explained. “Whether I need to cut it up, split it up, double it up, I need to let those drivers know I’m switching you up or I’m flipping you.”
Jones said her district has found a way to combat the ongoing driver shortage. Catoosa County is currently the most staffed it has been in the past four years with only seven positions short, compared to 20 to 35 positions short previous years.
“I try to encourage with incentives, like special recognition for perfect attendance, years of safe driving, clean bus, safety and skills competition, and a transportation department employee of the year,” Jones shared. “We recognize birthdays, years of service and things like that. However, the main thing that has helped us to retain drivers, or to get drivers in here, was to gain our board’s approval for an increase in our field trip rate of pay.”
Just two years ago, Jones explained there was up to an $8 decrease in pay for driving a field trip compared to a route. But now, Jones said that no matter what route the drivers are operating, their rate of pay remains the same because their responsibilities don’t change.
Jones said addressing the ongoing driver shortage is not simply about dealing with sick outages. It also entails developing a succession plan to accounts for retiring employees.
“When I first took the position back in 2012, about 70 percent of the drivers had 20 or more years [of service],” Jones said. “Well you blink your eyes and they’re retiring. Now 60 percent of the fleet has three years or less.”
This younger group of drivers, along with a comprehensive safety and training program, is the legacy that Jones said she hopes to leave behind. She was quick to add that she’s not planning to retire anytime soon.
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The biggest technological change that Jones has seen over the year is cell phone usage. She said she didn’t have a cell phone when she first began driving. She had to wait until she got home to use the phone.
In addition to cell phone use, she said she is seeing more drivers use other mobile electronic devices connected to Bluetooth, including the Apple Watch, while driving.
“People, for some reason, they are so addicted. They still wear that Bluetooth [earpiece], or they try to hide it,” Jones observed “Some of them are bold enough to reach down and pick up the phone when they don’t have students. And now we are seeing are the Apple Watches and they can tap and still talk, but that’s an electronic device.”
Jones said her district has a very strict zero-tolerance policy for electronic use on the school bus that could result in termination. She said that all laws, regulations and policies for electronic use while operating a school bus are reiterated at the beginning of each year, at every safety meeting, and during new employee orientation sessions.
“Even with our bus monitors, your attention needs to be on that student, not on the game, or taking care of your personal business or calls,” Jones said. “There are times when disciplinary actions for bus monitors become necessary, including discouraging them from personal use, gaming or reading their tablet [while on the bus]. They are supposed to be engaged with the children.”
Today’s drivers not only have a cell phone but so do a majority of the students, Jones explained. She said the devices are not only distractions when loading and unloading. Student transporters can’t manage what the students are looking at and/or listening to during the route.
Despite these challenges, Jones had an easy answer when asked why she continues to do work in student transportation every day.
“I think it’s the most important [job] anybody can do. I want to make sure those routes are covered, that all students are going to get picked up,” Jones explained. “My husband says I’m consumed, that’s what he calls it. I call it passionate because I can’t turn it off. It’s a 365-days-a-year, 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job. The wheels are constantly turning.”