Wendy Moore, the superintendent and elementary school principal at Genesee Joint School District No. 282 in Idaho, knows the ins and outs of being a school bus driver all too well.
Amid the school bus driver shortage, Transportation Director Jeff Williams said he encouraged Moore to get her commercial driver’s license, as it would show the severity of the situation and potentially encourage some teachers or community members to step up.
“I pointed out to her that we really needed somebody to lead the band here, and that she would be the ideal person to do it,” said Williams, who started his career as a bus driver. “. And that didn’t go well [at first]. But eventually, she came around and decided that she would do it.”
It ended up taking Williams a year to finally convince Moore to get behind the wheel. “He’s like, even if you never drive, if you just go get your license, people will realize that it’s very important. That if the superintendent’s willing to do it, maybe some other parents will step up, maybe we could get some teachers in,” Moore recalled.
Williams added that it took somewhere between seven to nine months to get Moore trained because of her busy schedule. But the experiment has paid off.
“It did make a difference for us as far as a community. When I went in and did our open house for the school at the beginning of the year, I’m talking to people about coming back to school again, and we’re going to be face to face and short substitutes, we’re short bus drivers,” Moore said, adding that if she can be a school bus driver, any of parents can do the job, too. “Parents are seeing me drive the bus. We did have people step up thinking that if the superintendent has to drive a bus in the morning, there must be a real shortage.”
She added that due to the COVID-19 rules, no one was allowed to be in the gym to see their children play sports, but because school bus drivers were considered essential, they were given the privilege to sit inside the gym. This encouraged some parents to become substitute drivers. Now the district has the most substitute bus drivers it has had in the past 10 years, Moore added.
While Moore said she never had the desire to drive a school bus, she now loves it. She explained it gives her an opportunity to see where her kids live and have a relationship with them outside of the classroom and school building, which she is enjoying.
“And sometimes it’s just the conversations that you can have,” Moore said, adding that the district transports on average 60 students across four daily routes and 180 square miles. “We live in a very rural area, so some of my best routes are quite a way outside of town. You may have just one or two students on the bus for the last 10 to 15 minutes of the route, and they just want to talk to you. You can talk about their day and see their dog when you drop them off that they’re always talking about, and it gives you more of a personal connection.”
She noted that sitting and driving a bus also gives kids 100 percent attention, as opposed to when she’s in the building and can be pulled away at any moment.
“She made a comment when she came in after her first route that this was a different side of the kids that she didn’t get to see,” Williams explained. “And she really enjoyed it. These buses are nothing but rolling classrooms. And that’s one of the reasons I think that I’ve been a little bit more successful in recruiting drivers because I didn’t go out looking for drivers. I went looking for teachers and mentors. And that’s what I got, and it’s working out really well.”
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Williams added that he believes driving a school bus has changed Moore’s perspective on transportation operations. He noted that when she comes into the bus garage before her morning runs, she’s not a superintendent, but simply another one of the drivers that have gathered to drink coffee. “I’m super impressed with her,” Williams said. “She is a very, very busy lady. And yet when I tell her that I need a substitute she moves [her schedule] around.”
Moore noted that the experience has made her cognizant about the length of bus route times. “When I was training and looking at the routes, I even went out on the weekends in my personal vehicle to see if there is a better way to do this route to shorten the time,” she said. “I think it is just as important as athletics or things like that. Parents love to see you show up for a ballgame and watch their kids play. And I think parents are just as pleased to see you drive a bus and make sure their kids get home safely and things like that. Also, transportation is a huge expense for districts, so the more I know about it, the better I feel about it.”
She added that the training that goes into being a school bus driver was also a surprise. Because she spends most of her day in the administration building, she didn’t know how much bus training went on. But this school year, she said a regional school bus driver training session opened her eyes to the different challenges.
“We’re dealing with what’s happening in our building and worrying about lunch programs and all those kinds of things,” Moore explained of her normal daily tasks. “Transportation will usually take the back seat. So, that was very intriguing to me to have that experience.”
She added that since being a substitute driver, she’s sat in on meetings in the bus garage that provided her information into concerns that drivers are experiencing and their internal dialogue.
“It was very interesting to hear what some of the bus drivers worry about,” she said, noting that new drivers are always concerned about student discipline.
“This last month, I learned how to put chains on tires,” she added, laughing. “Never thought I’d need to know it.”
She advises other transportation directors to occasionally invite superintendents to certain meetings. Sending superintendents a calendar invite, she said, could ensure that they are aware it’s happening and break out of their routines.
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“I see my K-12 teachers daily, multiple times throughout the day,” Moore said, adding that all 280 students learn in a single building “But my bus drivers I see five minutes in the morning when they drop off and I see them 10 minutes at the most at night. You don’t really get to build those relationships with them unless you make a concerted effort.”
She added that usually, superintendents don’t intentionally try to avoid transportation, instead, she said that it’s just more challenging to have relationships because transportation is usually off-site.
“I think it’s really beneficial for superintendents to take that extra time … going down there and giving the same information that you’ve given your teachers to your drivers just to keep them informed. I think we sometimes forget that,” Moore explained. “The community looks at school bus drivers as school employees and will ask them questions about school. We really need to make it a priority to keep them just as informed as we do the people inside our building. I think that’s something we just have to make a conscious effort of, and we can do always do a little bit better job in that.”
Editor’s Note: Read more about superintendents and transportation departments working together in the April magazine issue of School Transportation News.