KCS bus drivers face many challenges

Abigail Fanning, Staff Writer

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The life of a bus driver can be challenging, hard and stressful all at the same time, and Kingsport City Schools’ bus drivers are no different.

Homer Marcum, who drives Kingsport City Schools’ bus number 9, only became a bus driver after a long and varied career.

“My very first job was teaching high school English and Journalism, and I was the school paper advisor,” he said. “But after a few years, I used my skills and training to become a newspaper editor. I did that for most of my working years. I eventually went to work for Holston United Methodist Home for Children, helping raise funds to support the children.”

Tony Starnes, the Kingsport City Schools Transportation Director, was actually a former tour bus driver for musicians.

“I actually was just looking for a daytime part-time job when I started here,” he said. “I had a background driving a tour bus for bands and musicians.”

The requirements to be a bus driver ensure that each driver can demonstrate the necessary skills to perform the duties and responsibilities required for the job.

“First, you have to pass drug testing and then Homeland Security background checks,” Starnes said. “The next step is to get hired. You can’t get a school bus license until you have been hired by a school system to drive. They must have a ‘Class B’ commercial driver’s license with a passenger and school bus endorsement.”

One of the most important rules a bus driver has to follow is to focus on safety.

“Kingsport drivers are proud of our safety record,” Marcum said. “It has been more than 50 years since a rider on one of our buses has been injured. We want to continue that safety record. To do that, we must control student behavior so that the driver is not distracted, and watch out for other drivers and observe all driving laws. It’s a big and important job. We are very serious about safety.”

In Kingsport City Schools, a bus driver’s day starts early.

“I get up at 4:45 am each school-day morning,” Marcum said. “My workday begins at 6:00 am. I pick up my first students at 6:15 am. We arrive at Sevier Middle School at 7:00 am.”

Even first thing in the morning, safety is key.

“Every bus is inspected before every trip every time with no exceptions,” Starnes said.

Most of the time, cars do stop when they see a stop sign on a school bus. There are some exceptions. When a car keeps driving despite the stop sign, the bus drivers can write down the license number of the car and report it to police.

“The drivers usually spend 50% of their time on the runs watching the students in the overhead mirrors to keep them seated and buckled as they also negotiate a fifty-footer through city traffic.” Starnes said.

KCS uses several methods to encourage students to stay seated and calm, like a program called “Books on Buses”. They are also experimenting with Wi-Fi on a couple of the longer runs that will allow the students to do homework on their way home.

Drivers sometimes run into the problem that students are not calm, in which case the drivers have to report the students’ behavior to the principal.

“Bus 9 has six cameras inside the bus and two on the outside,” Marcum said. “Students know that everything they say and do is being recorded and that the principal can watch the video at any time. The best calming effect is to remind them of that.”

The biggest challenge the drivers face is keeping students in their seats and buckled.

“There is always going to be some friction when the buses are fully loaded due to the fact that there are tight seats,” Starnes said.

Marcum agrees.

“It is now a state law in the state of Tennessee that every person riding on a public road must wear a seat belt at all times,” he said. “The simplest thing to do is to follow the rules. The drivers hate disciplining the students for bad behavior.”

Even the weather affects a bus driver’s daily routine.

“From the heat in the summer to the cold in the winter, the driving conditions in our area change drastically,” Starnes said. “The main change is driving for the conditions. And that usually translates to everything slowing down and being more cautious.”

Slick roads make the bus drivers’ job more hazardous. Rain makes the bus messy inside. Bad weather makes bus windows fog up and interferes with the driver’s ability to see and makes buses harder to stop and causes other drivers to more frequently lose control of their vehicles.

A bus driver doesn’t know what is going to happen during the course of his or her day. An example of this is an exchange that Marcum had with one of his female riders.

“One day, I mentioned that she should go home and tell her parents about something she told me, and her reply was, ‘I have no parents’,” Marcum said. “Hearing that nearly broke my heart. She explained that her father had died of a drug overdose and her mother was in jail for drugs. She told me that last year, and all summer I worried about her.”

One of the more lighthearted experiences Marcum had as a bus driver is reminiscent of the story “Cinderella”.

“My most unusual story might be the one about the time a little boy’s shoe went flying out of the school-bus window,” Marcum said. “He never did explain to me how another student wound up with his shoe before tossing it out.”

Sevier students appreciate their bus drivers’ efforts.

“It is important to have bus drivers so the kids that can’t be taken to school by their parents can get to school,” Madison Park, a seventh grade student, said. “My favorite part of riding the bus is being able to hang with friends without have an adult watching you constantly.”

Brandon Hernandez, a sixth grade student, agrees.

“Talking to my friends is my favorite thing,” he said. “Staying quiet and the driver yelling at us is my least favorite, but stricter bus drivers make riding the bus a safer experience.”

At the end of the day, the bus drivers of Kingsport City Schools are happy to be hauling students to school.

“I love driving a school bus for Kingsport City Schools.” Marcum said. “I believe students can tell when a driver enjoys his or her job. I hope they can see that in my interaction with them. Being around young people is a reward in and of itself. I get the feeling every day that I might be hauling a future president of the United States to school, or a future Olympian. That makes it fun.”

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