Contributing Writer-Macon County News
School buses are an integral part of the Macon County School (MCS) System. There are 52 bus routes in Macon County, which cover all nine schools, seven of which are considered full-time routes. Todd Gibbs, Macon County Transportation, and Ground Facilities states “These routes total 30 hours or more each week. Full-time employees are eligible for retirement benefits, health care benefits, supplemental insurance benefits, etc. All other routes are 4-5.5 hours per day. That means anywhere from 2 – 2.75 hours per morning and afternoon route, the minimum pay for bus drivers is $15/hour. We have drivers who have topped out of the pay scale and only receive pay increases when the General Assembly votes percentage increases for all school employees.”
The county’s yellow busses run more than 2,500 miles per day. It costs $1,276.315 to run these buses. They get about 8 miles per gallon per bus. The dollar amount may seem like a large number but busses run from Tellico to Walnut Creek, to Mulberry, to Standing Indian. This amount pays for diesel, tires, oil, filters, seat covers, drivers’ pay and benefits, and mechanics’ pay and benefits, and that is just for the yellow busses.
Why Drive a School Bus
Carolyn Fouts is one of the many School Bus Drivers in Macon County.
“I got my bus license in January 1991 after driving for two years in Georgia, before coming back home,” she said. “So this January will be 32 years for Macon County Schools. I’ve had a bus license for 34 years in total. I am one of five EC (Exceptional Children) bus drivers that serve Macon County/Franklin Area Schools. EC buses have Safety Assistants that ride also. I drove several years out in the Holly Springs area driving the bigger bus. One of my bus students then, works on my school bus now, Josh!”
Today, Fouts fills in wherever needed and covers most of the county.
“I’m sort of all over the place. I drive Clarks Chapel, Patton Area, Sylva Rd, Lake Emory Rd, and town streets, and the Iotla area,” said Fouts. “At this time, I drop and pick up children at FHS, MMS, MVI, SME, EFES, and I pick up at IVE only. I drive three routes, 1st three hrs, 2nd one hour, 3rd four hrs, totaling eight hrs, that’s including pre-checks and cleaning the bus.”
With 34 years of experience driving in Macon County, Fouts said she enjoys the connections she makes with the students.
“I enjoy driving the bus and you get attached to the children and parents, I have one to graduate this year that I’ve had since he was seven. When they graduate, you miss them. It’s always a good feeling to see former students come up and speak to you and give you a hug. Although driving a school bus and being out in public can have a twist. I had one student that didn’t know me because I wasn’t on the bus. That was funny! Traffic is bad, especially on these smaller back roads. I encounter more cars/trucks coming over on my side of the road, than people running my bus stop. The other problem is, people don’t want to follow the school bus so they will pull out in front of you. You have to watch for that. I am a full-time driver. If you’re interested in a part-time job, driving a bus isn’t hard at all. We need drivers! Even if you just want to sub, you can stay busy driving.”
Linda Williams also works as a bus driver for Macon County Schools. She speaks about her experiences driving a bus for 40 years.
“I drive both morning and afternoon. I drive bus #41 for South Macon Elementary,” said Williams. “I drive in the Otto area. I travel to four schools. The traffic/road construction to/from South Macon and Franklin High can be very challenging. As far student discipline, we discuss safety and the rules for riding the bus. We have an understanding of what is expected of each other. I have a really good group of riders. They are well-behaved. I’m very proud of them. We have support from our principals and assistant principals as well.”
More than just a job, Williams said she likes being able to drive a bus because she feels like it is a great way to give back.
“I like driving because I love kids. Also, it’s a way of giving back to my community,” said Williams. “I’m close to driving three generations. I have driven the same route throughout my career. A special thank you is needed for the parents for being understanding when issues arise that causes me to be early/late. They are a very important part of things going smoothly. I have been truly blessed during my years as a driver. I’ve developed lots of friendships with the kids and parents that continue to this day. I consider them my extended family.
School Bus Crisis
According to Macon County Schools Transportation Director Todd Gibbs, bus drivers have always been difficult to come by, however, the problem became worse during COVID-19.
“Since COVID especially, but somewhat before that, we have been short route drivers, and especially substitute bus drivers,” said Gibbs. “It is now the norm to have at least one bus in the county not running because there is no driver for it. Five years ago, it was extremely rare for a bus to sit because there was no driver for it. Ideally, we would have 10 substitute drivers in a pool to use for fill-in. But since we don’t have enough drivers for regular routes, I don’t see us having any sort of pool of substitute drivers in the near future. Many local businesses are currently short employees, we are in the same situation with drivers. Bus driving is a very rewarding job. Kids in Macon County Schools are great kids. Understandably, bus driving is also somewhat stressful. The amount of traffic a driver has to navigate a bus through requires attentiveness and caution.”
Kim Smith is a parent of two Macon County School Children who have been adversely affected by the bus shortage. Kim, who works at Wal-Mart, explains, “When I get a phone call early in the morning that my child’s bus will not be running today, I have to scramble to make alternate plans to get them both to school. The morning is not so bad because I can drive them to school before work, but in the afternoon I don’t get off until five PM so I need to find someone who can pick them up from school. I can’t leave work early, as we are assigned points at my job, and leaving early would deduct points and would adversely affect my job performance. In my particular case our bus has been without a driver too many times this year already.”
April Keefer is the mother of four Macon County school children. Each Child is in a different school this year. One is in elementary, one in MVI, one at MMS, and one at FHS. She states, “it is difficult to get each child to school on time with so many drop-offs and long car rider lines. Often at least one child goes in late if not two. In the afternoon I pick up my elementary school child first and the two at MVI and MMS have to wait at school until I can get there. My child in HS also has to wait later to get home. The bus has been non-operative several times this year sometimes for a few days in a row or only in the morning and not in the afternoon. It is very inconvenient to have to drive all over town dropping off and picking up my children. There have been several substitute drivers this year but not all days were covered.”
How to Become a School Bus Driver
Training: This is a long and drawn out process. It is dictated by the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration, and the state Department of Transportation, not Macon County Schools.
Three days of classroom training covering everything from air brakes on a bus to passenger stops, to mechanical pre-trip inspections, etc.
During this classroom training, they administer a drug screen.
They also ask that these trainees, if they are not school system employees, fill out an application for MCS. This is the only MCS requirement, besides them being approved for employment by the MCS Board of Education.
After the three days of classroom training, the trainee must go to the NCDMV-Drivers License office to obtain a CDL-Permit. This permit must be in their possession a minimum of 14 days before they can do behind-the-wheel training.
During this 14-day minimum wait, they also must get a CDL physical from one of the five health care providers in Franklin who are certified to do CDL/DOT physicals.
After they have gotten the CDL Permit, the drug screen, the CDL/DOT physical, and the 14 day minimum wait, they are then eligible to do the 3 days of behind-the-wheel training.
This is a full 3 days where the trainee practices handling a bus, passenger stops, pre-trip inspections, etc.
After these 3 days of behind-the-wheel training, the trainee must go back to the NCDMV-Drivers License office to get their permanent CDL license.
All of the expenses, CDL Permit, DOT Physical, drug screen, and permanent CDL license are all reimbursable expenses by the school system with the MCS reimbursement form and receipts.
If you are interested in driving a school bus for Macon County, contact Todd Gibbs at (828) 524-3314 ext 1029.