According to Google Maps, for a person to take a drive from Farmington to San Diego, California, is a very lengthy 1,796 miles.
In comparison, the Farmington R-7 School District’s buses cover that distance every day. Stacy Williams is the transportation manager for the district and for 18 years she has been making sure that every school day kids get to school and back home safely.
“We average 1,800 miles a day,” she said. “We have 321 square miles that are the district’s boundaries.”
Twenty-eight bus routes
According to Williams, the school district's bus routes were established long ago. “The reason they stay that way is because they work. They have been adjusted, but they just make sense geographically. We have two buses that go down Highway 32. The front part of that is from here to Dorlac Road, and from Dorlac to Miller’s Switch is another route. From there, you go the off-roads where one driver goes AA Highway and the other goes Genevieve Church Road.”
Some of the routes require additional safety measures.
“Because they are busy highways, picking up kids on highways 32 and 221 are door-side pickups only," Williams said. "Kids can’t cross in front of the bus. You have to pick up kids on your way out and kids on your way back.”
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With the school district adjusting the routes over the years, buses no longer travel on some of the backroads that the district once serviced. One of the reasons is security. Williams referenced a bus hijacking case that occurred years ago in another state when a bus was on a remote road.
“When you get down some of these roads and you don’t have cell service, you’re a sitting duck for anybody,” she said.
Another reason Williams refuses to service some back roads is because of the additional time involved.
“One of them is Plummer Road,” she said. “We don’t travel it anymore. The parents have to bring them out. We don’t travel Sand Creek Road. When you look at your time, we would never get done. You can only put so many kids on a bus and do it within an amount of time that makes it realistic. Some of the kindergarteners get on the bus at 3 p.m. Some of them are not getting off until 4:30 p.m. That’s a long time for a kid to be on there.”
Williams added that some subdivisions also fit in this category. “We stopped going into Farmington Meadows. The roads are narrow. You have people parking everywhere. You have a yard sale going on there, you’re never getting through. We can’t control that and we can’t turn around, and we can’t back up just anywhere. We have to have a spotter.”
The routes are also influenced by how many students can be on and off the bus as quickly as possible.
“We are three to a seat on every bus except three or four,” Williams said. “When we leave town, we are dropping off immediately when we leave the schools. If they are three to a seat, there will only be three to a seat for about two to five minutes. Then we start letting off. When you look at your in-town kids, you have apartment complexes. You let off 15-25 right off. On Highway H, from when we leave Walter Street to Copenhagen Road, we let off about 50 kids. In the morning we start out at the farthest end of the run and work our way in. In the afternoon, it’s the opposite where we are dropping off quickly.”
Aside from the bus routes, special activities and miscellaneous trips take up a lot of that mileage and resources. During the week, two to three buses per day are usually being used for other activities.
“On Saturdays, you can have 5-10 buses out,” Williams said. “One Saturday, we had 12 buses out. It varies. The other part of how many miles a day we drive, for our alternative school, we have to get some of those kids home. We do that before we do our routes.”
With proper notice, the special activities can generally be handled as needed.
“I can’t say enough about our coaches and sponsors,” Williams said. “They’ll email me about how a date looks and needing a driver — giving me a heads up before I see the paperwork. Last minutes? I get those too. We try to accommodate and do our best.”
With buildings scattered throughout Farmington, buses simply cannot stop by every school to pick up or drop off their students every morning and evening. Williams noted that the district uses a shuttle system.
“A lot of the other districts don’t have that,” she said. “This was made up way before I started here. We have about seven buses that start out at Truman [Learning Center]. All those buses go to the different schools. They take all the kindergarteners to the buses at those schools and all the kindergarteners then get on their bus to go home. After that, the other kids then board the buses to go home.”
Williams explained that was the first round shuttle and admits that how the shuttle system works is almost indescribable without experiencing it firsthand.
“You have to see it," she said. "It works. It’s on time. By 3:15 p.m., we have to be going because it takes six minutes to get across town. At the schools, we usually load by 3:30 p.m. All the buses are generally loaded by 3:40 p.m. We start our first shuttle in the morning, so we are at our schools at 7:15 a.m. and unload our kids and from there they shuttle. At the high school, we want all kids there by 7:35 a.m. because their first bell rings at 7:40. All the other schools start later.”
Keeping it safe
For heavy traffic roadways, the students are not allowed to cross the road at a stop. Where the kids do cross getting on or off, however, the district follows the thumb’s up system where students do not cross the road until the driver signals with an upturned thumb. Williams says that can be a bit difficult for the little ones.
“It’s hard to train them because mom is standing out there across the road and little girls can’t wait to get across the road to mommy, but they have to look at the driver to get the thumbs up,” she said.
While relatively rare in the past, Williams continuously struggles with other drivers passing buses while the red lights are on.
“Nowadays, people just don’t stop,” she said. “It’s truly sad. We are dropping off kids, we are big and yellow, we have lights everywhere, but you’re still in that big of a hurry and you’re thinking there are no kids on the ground. I can get through. With texting, people just don’t pay attention anymore either — especially daycares. They assume that one person can control all — say 15 kids — that get off there.
"You’re going to have your little runners. When that person comes through, what are they going to do when that little guy turns and runs out there? They do that all the time. A piece of paper blows out of their hand and they go after it. It’s their instinct to run after it. The districts all around have been so lucky that something hasn’t happened to a child.
“We have people that do it all the time. As I was stopped on 221, three cars went through my stop. They had plenty of time to stop and they didn’t. I had kids on the bus. I kept them there, but I couldn’t get any information because they came through so quick. On that particular bus, it was not a newer bus where we had the outside camera. All the buses we order now have the outside camera.”
Williams warns that with the cameras on the buses, there’s a good chance a driver is going to get caught if they do something illegal.
“The camera records the license plate,” she said. “That has been very helpful for holding people accountable. If that does happen, we follow through.”
A common safety feature in other vehicles, Williams considers seatbelts to be a potential problem for school buses in general.
“We don’t want seatbelts,” she said. “If there would be an accident, it’s off in the ditch and kids need to get out. The bus is leaning and all those kids are pulling against that seatbelt. They can’t undo it. How is that driver going to get all of those kids out of that seatbelt safely? If it catches on fire, a bus will be completely engulfed in two minutes. There’s no way I want seatbelts. For our kindergarteners, we do install our own seatbelts to keep them safe because they’re bouncers.”
With district buses traveling an average of 1,800 miles a day, Williams gives high marks to the driver safety record.
“We have had minimal accidents,” she said. “The things that have happened are what I would call minor. A bus was pulling out of the parking lot. He clipped a hitch on the back of a car and pulled it out. There were no kids on the bus and nobody in the car. It was still an incident. That’s the stuff we normally deal with. We have a very good safety record.”
The last major traffic incident involving a district bus was in 2014, when one was struck by a pickup struck at the intersection of State Route H and U.S. 67. No children were on the bus at the time of the accident.
“When you put it in perspective of all the miles covered each day and our activities are going to places like Lindbergh, Mehlville, Ladue, that’s a challenge,” Williams said.
To add to the mix, in winter months, the weather can present a challenge for Williams and the administration in deciding whether or not to run the buses.
“It is a group effort,” she said. “Superintendent [Matt] Ruble is always the one to make the final decision. We get out and drive roads. It is a challenge. There are some days that in town there is nothing, but you go out somewhere else and have three inches of snow or it’s a sheet of ice.”
Kids will be kids
On average, the district transports 2,300-2,500 students per day. Keeping kids from misbehaving on a bus has been a problem since the first school bus was built and making kids act appropriately while onboard is still a difficult problem.
“Parents need to realize that we have so many noises in a bus,” she said. “When you are sitting on the engine of the bus, it is loud. You cannot hear anything. When it’s raining that day, you have the defroster and fans going. All the seat backs are four inches higher than they used to be. If they’re a small child, you’re lucky to see the top of their head. It’s not that we don’t want to address an issue. Then again, if we are addressing an issue and our eyes are looking in the mirror, then we are not driving safe.”
Another safety feature helpful in maintaining discipline is the interior cameras. All the buses have cameras that record the interior of the bus during use. When the driver enters the lot at the end of the run, they leave the bus running and the video downloads for the administrator’s access if necessary.
“Some districts still have the SD cards where they have to send it to the school for the principal to look at,” she said. “We just got rid of VHS tapes in 2013. It was getting pretty scarce to find VHS tapes.”
By the numbers
Although there are 28 bus routes, the district has 39 buses in the fleet, with the extras used for special activities and substitutes. That large of a fleet uses a lot of fuel, so the district has its own fuel tanks to keep things moving.
“I order 7,500 gallons [of diesel fuel] every six weeks,” she said. “That’s for routes and activities and a couple of our district’s vehicles that are diesel.”
All but one of the buses in the fleet are manufactured by the Blue Bird Corporation. Most of the buses carry 77 passengers, with a couple that hold 78. One is an early childhood bus that holds 64 passengers. The district has two full-time mechanics to keep the buses on the road, although they also act as substitute drivers when necessary. Williams said that the average cost of a bus with air conditioning is about $120,000, and a 78 passenger bus has a 35-foot, 7-inch body length from windshield to rear bumper.
“A couple of years ago, we did this on our own and we were the first in the state to do this," Williams said. "I talked to our Blue Bird sales representative about putting reverse lights on the back of the bus. I had seen it in a magazine that when you opened the door of the bus, there was a light shined out for early morning where a kid could see to walk up to the bus.
"In our district we do a lot of turnarounds. On all of our newer buses, if you put it in reverse, there are lights that go on that come out of the back bumpers, so my drivers can see to back up. My sales guy said he couldn’t believe that no one thought of it before. Some of our routes leave out of here by 5:45 a.m. You’re not getting any sunlight for a while.”
Help wanted ad
For some activities and events, there are instructors who will drive the buses to help out. “We promote it that they can," Wiliams said. "We have a couple of coaches that have gotten their CDL (commercial driver's license), which is helpful. We don’t require it, where some school districts require it. We all have the same problem.”
The problem of which she speaks is a shortage of drivers.
“It’s a daily challenge,” she said. “The struggle now is not having enough drivers. That affects your routes and your activity drivers. I’m looking at the month of trips and I don’t have a driver here and I don’t have a driver there. It’s hard to reroute or ask parents. We don’t have enough drivers. Can you get those kids to a sporting event? I’ve never had that in 18 years. This is the first year for this.
“The drivers here are very loyal. I wish more people would get on board. I had an open house. We had posters looking for drivers. We had a sign-up sheet. We had 18 people sign up as interested and wanting more information. When we called back, we got one and we’re glad to have him.”
Drivers must have a CDL, which requires taking three written state-level tests to be eligible.
“We start out at $18.35 per hour,” Williams said. “That’s step one, what our subs make. We are only part-time. Our three routes that we have open right now are about three hours. They are our smallest routes. Our activity pay is $11 per hour, if you take a field trip or game. Ideally, I would like to have five people so that we could have sub drivers.”
Williams told the story of a district bus driver who at first only drove for activities, but later decided to help out on routes.
“One of my drivers came in the other day," she said. "He had a kid when he first started helping us on routes that had a meltdown on the bus. Last week, she was getting off the bus. He said, ‘You have a good day.’ She said ‘You too,’ and grabbed him and gave him a big hug. He said there are days when he wants to throw in his keys, then there’s days like today. Sometimes it’s that one kid you made a difference with, but sometimes it’s the one kid that makes a difference with you, too. It goes both ways.”
Mark Marberry is a reporter for the Farmington Press and Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3629, or at firstname.lastname@example.org