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TESTING – David Thornton, left, of Meridian, observes Jack Newell, school bus trainer and tester with the Mississippi Department of Education, as he checks the air brakes on a school bus Thursday before testing Thornton for school bus driver certification. Photo by Steve Gillespie / The Meridian Star

By By Steve Gillespie / staff writer
May 19, 2002
The hardest part of driving a school bus, according to Ronnie Shumaker, a teacher at Oakland Heights Elementary School, is trying to do several tasks at one time.
The issue of school bus safety has come under scrutiny because of an incident three weeks ago in which a 5-year-old West Lauderdale kindergarten student was dragged when her arm became caught in a school bus door. The bus driver, Michelle Smith, resigned her position with Lauderdale County schools and the district is facing possible litigation over the incident.
Jack Newell, the person who tested Smith to certify her as a public school bus driver for the Mississippi Department of Education, said she met all the requirements for the job.
The guidelines
Public school bus drivers must be at least 18 years old and have a valid Class "A", "B" or "C" commercial drivers license with a "P" endorsement, meaning they are qualified to carry passengers.
A Class "C" license allows drivers to transport students in a bus that weighs 26,000 pounds or less. A Class "B" license is required to drive buses more than 26,000 pounds. Class "A" licenses can be used to drive even larger vehicles, such as 18-wheelers. Most school buses require either a "B" or "C" classification.
Bus drivers must have at least 20/40 vision, corrected or uncorrected, in each eye.
To receive state certification, bus drivers must complete a one-day training course that includes classroom instruction, agility testing and a driving test.
The agility test is to make sure the driver can do the following:
Climb and descend the steps of the bus without pausing; open and close the manually controlled bus door while in the driver's seat;
Activate the brake pedal with the right foot within 0.75 seconds after removing the right foot from the throttle pedal;
Operate driving controls using both arms simultaneously and quickly while driving; and,
Demonstrate proper steering, shifting, maneuvering, braking and use of mirrors while driving.
Drivers are also tested on a series of turns, parking and other maneuvers, as well as on their ability to identify the different parts of the bus.
A school bus driver's certification is good for two years, then they must be recertified.
Bus drivers in both Meridian and Lauderdale County schools are subject to background checks and alcohol and drug tests before they are hired. They are also subject to monthly, random alcohol and drug tests after they are hired.
Challenges to the district
One of the greatest challenges for all school districts, according to Jayson Chisolm, director of transportation for Meridian schools and David Little, superintendent of Lauderdale County schools, is keeping a dependable pool of bus drivers on hand.
Chisolm said bus drivers often leave for better job offers.
Little said 90 percent of Lauderdale County's drivers work for the district year after year.
Little said about 25 teachers in the county school district who also drive buses; in Meridian schools, three teachers drive buses.
County bus drivers are paid within a range of $4,575 to $5,948 per year based on the length of their route. In Meridian bus drivers start out at $7.53 an hour and top out at $13.21 an hour. Chisolm said the routes take between three-and-a-half to four hours a day to complete.
From the driver's seat
Moses Bell, 69, has been a bus driver for Meridian schools since 1956.
After 41 years on the job, Bell retired in 1997, but went back to work for the school district as a substitute driver the following year.
Bell loves his job and the children he takes back and forth to school.
However, he said misbehaving children can be the worst part of his job. Sometimes he has to pull the bus over to settle down his passengers.
Behavior problems are then reported to the students' principals and they decide what punishment will be imposed, which could include suspension from riding the bus.
Being a teacher, Shumaker said he doesn't have the discipline problems other bus drivers encounter.
His distractions are more traffic oriented, like dangerous intersections, narrow streets and other motorists, even with all the cautionary lights and a stop sign posted on buses.