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Ready To Roll - Bus Drivers Focus On Safety First
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Oakdale Joint Unified School District school bus driver Maryann Largent in the drivers seat of her 84 seat school bus. Fourteen years later the driver still greets each day and each child with a smile and helping hand. - photo by Teresa Hammond/The Leader

The saying goes, “there is no rest for the weary” and that just might be the case in the ‘Land of the Bus Yard’ at the east end of Oakdale.

According to Oakdale Joint Unified School District Director of Maintenance, Operation and Transportation (MOT) Dan Casey, work at ‘the yard’ starts as early as 5 a.m. Monday through Friday. Casey added the ‘Transportation’ title to his job description at the beginning of 2014.

“The first bus leaves at 5:45 a.m.,” Casey said, “and the last leaves a couple of minutes before 8.”

Casey shared the site maintains nine drivers, two mechanics, one multi-purpose driver, a trainer, dispatcher and one assistant dispatcher, as well as on-call substitute drivers.

“Bus drivers are required to get a lot of training,” Trainer Kari Anderson shared. “They have at least 10 hours and most of the time more of training dealing with laws, safety, defensive driving skills and field trips.”

“From managing the traffic and so many laws to follow,” Casey said of the bus drivers, “our district is very fortunate to have an in house trainer. Laws are constantly changing and Kari helps keep them up to date and safe.”

Many of the vehicles and drivers have been on the road for years.

“This rig is one of the safest vehicles on the road,” Casey continued, referring to Bus 17 belonging to veteran driver of 14 years Maryann Largent.

“My day starts at 5:30 a.m. and ends at 4:50 p.m.,” Largent said, indicating there is a break period in between once she delivers her PM Kindergarten students.

“We’re all different,” she said of the routes and schedules.

Largent’s bus goes through a complete inspection each day before she leaves the yard to make her rounds and collect her students. Her bus can seat as many as 84.

“Some kids I’ve driven from their Kindergarten until senior year,” the driver said.

The veteran driver covers roadways including rural and in town areas, racking up a total of 115 miles each day. It’s a task which requires focus, as well as skill.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on in here,” she stated, motioning to the area behind the driver seat. “I have to be focused on what’s going on out there as well.”

Largent shared that one of her largest frustrations is the impatience of passing and surrounding vehicles.

“A lot of drivers (auto) don’t know the law,” she said, noting the process to properly pull over to retrieve or drop off a student. “When I place my lights on amber for 200 feet it’s a warning to the drivers, that I’m going to pull over and I’m going to go red.”

It’s a responsibility the driver does not take lightly.

“These bus drivers have so many things to think of,” said Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Terri Taylor during a recent ride-along on Largent’s route. “That’s why we have to have very strict guidelines on the bus. It’s for everyone’s safety.”

One need only ride with Largent 30 minutes to realize the vulnerable position a driver is in, as they coast down the road focused on road safety with all the students to their back. Largent shared for the most part, her students are well behaved and know the expectations, but things happen.

“In that case,” she said, “we pull over and use our student management skills.”

“If it’s something really bad, they’re just gone,” Taylor said, indicating that bus service is a privilege not to be taken for granted or abused. “That rarely happens, but we will do it.”

Typically speaking the warning process is similar to that of a school campus, warnings tend to correct the problem.

“I love my kids,” Largent said. “You get used to their personalities. My job is to ensure their safety and get them to and from their drop off and pick up points. I take that very seriously.”

Back at the yard, Dispatcher Barbara Williamson takes her role seriously also.

“Some days can go as late at 9 p.m.,” she said, noting if busses are out on field trips or there are sub spots that need filling.

Williamson has spent 25 years working for the district and has weathered a number of changes and reorganizations. At the end of it all it’s the challenge which brings her the most joy at day’s end.

“Watching it all come together at the end of the day,” she said of the job’s highlights. “We didn’t leave a kid on a bus and everyone got home safely.”

“There’s a lot of teamwork,” Largent shared of the drivers, as well as dispatch. “We’re talking between radios all the time. We have to make it work as a team to keep it moving.”

“They’re pretty amazing people,” Casey said of the team responsible for transporting 1500 students safely throughout the district. “I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen since January.”