By Greg Mellen
Bus drivers perform a vital and often overlooked role in students’ educational lives, ferrying them safely to and from school, or around town on field trips, to sports competitions, and other events.
“We’re the first person (students) see in the morning and the last they see at night,” says Jay McNamara, Director of Transportation for the District. “We have a unique opportunity to make a difference in their lives.”
Kimberly Doeringer is a paraeducator who rides on the bus with driver Jose Patrino-Standley transporting special education kids to Dana Hills.
“We get the kids excited for school,” she said. “A lot of it is just me and my driver and being positive.”
On Doeringer’s rides there is singing and music, and the bus is often decorated for special occasions and holidays. It makes a difference.
This year, Doeringer received a Sunshine Award and was nominated as a Classified Employee of the Year. The Sunshine Awards are given to school staff members who make an impact on the life of a special needs student. They are nominated by parents and families of the children.
In the case of Doeringer, the nominating parent had a child who was resistant to attending school before meeting Doeringer and Patino-Standley.
“We make a pretty good team,” Doeringer said.
The employees of the Capistrano Unified School District Transportation Department were recognized recently. Since 2009, California has observed School Bus Drivers’ Day annually on the fourth Tuesday in April. The legislature officially observes the day to “draw special public attention to school bus drivers in California for their enduring and exceptional contributions to students.”
At CUSD, the concept was broadened as Transportation Appreciation Day. In addition to drivers and paraeducators, the department includes mechanics, route specialists and planners, and dispatchers.
“CUSD likes to take the opportunity to recognize everybody in transportation,” McNamara said.
This year, as tacos were being prepped in the bus yard, more than 30 employees and assorted school board officials gathered at the department’s offices. Employee raffle winners received gift cards and baskets from In-N-Out and Starbucks, with one lucky person winning a 32-inch TV.
Employees spotlighted for recognition were nominees for the Department’s Classified Employee of the Year awards: Edwin Fuentes, Dolores Gonzales, Mike Johnston, Louis Maul, Bonnie McKinnon, Molly Thoman, and Employee of the Year Matthew Martinez.
Talking about the importance of his department, Carlos Chicas, Executive Director, Maintenance, Operations/Transportation, said, “Transportation is different. You cannot leave your work for the next day.”
Although understaffed, with 77 employees for 94 positions, Chicas said the department provides 147,000 trips to school and 22,000 field trips, covering about 1.3 million miles annually.
“It cements the idea of how important we are in these kids’ lives,” McNamara said.
“This day is special to take a moment to recognize that without them,” Chicas said of the assembled personnel, “some of our most vulnerable wouldn’t make it to school. They do it with love and we get to give some love back.”
The job is not easy. The drivers are considered part-time employees. They take students to school in the morning and return after school to take them home. However, with field trips and after-school sports, it isn’t uncommon for work days to go from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. A valid California Class B Driver’s License, School Bus Driver’s Certificate, medical, and first aid certificates are required along with training and classes provided by the district for free. Drivers are also required to take pre-employment drug testing and random testing after appointment.
It’s quite a bit of responsibility for little pay and notoriety.
“We don’t hear about you, you just get it done,” said CUSD Interim Superintendent Clark Hampton. “When things go wrong, that’s when you hear about it.”
However, the drivers love the job. They feel pride and a duty in the trust put in them by parents and their children.
Laurie Suntell, is like many of the drivers. The mother of a special needs child, she took the job seven years ago after she had retired and her daughter left school. The interactions she had with her daughter’s driver, and those relationships she now has with other parents, endure.
“I got to know the drivers,” she said. “I would bring out coffee. They became like friends.”