Greg Williams stopped the bright yellow West Valley school bus, turned on its amber lights, and pulled out the stop sign. He opened the door, pretending to welcome schoolchildren aboard. He checked the bus’s mirrors and counted each child who climbed up the steps.
The students are counted when they get on and off the bus for a couple of reasons. He counts them when they get on so he knows how many students are aboard, and when they get off so he knows how many to look for around the bus before he pulls back out onto the road.
“That’s the big word here,” he said. “Safety.”
Williams was participating in a bus driver training class last week. He and another student, Colleen Ramsey, spent three days in the classroom, going over safety procedures and state law and two days practicing driving a school bus. The two must complete the training and take a test from a third party before they can join the list of West Valley’s substitute drivers.
One of the biggest parts of the training? “Just a lot of maneuvering in a 40-foot bus,” said Teri Heinecke, the district’s driver trainer.
Ramsey said she just moved to the area from Texas, where she drove a school bus.
“I like driving,” she said. Ramsey said she was very surprised by one of the state’s laws about bus driving.
“The state of Washington doesn’t require (stops) at every railroad crossing,” she said.
Heinecke said different states have different laws, and West Valley’s policies must be at least as strict as the state laws but can be stronger.
“West Valley requires our buses to stop at all of them (railroad crossings) unless they are exempt,” Heinecke said. There are some railroad crossings in the district where the buses don’t stop for safety reasons, such as the one at Empire Avenue and Argonne Road, a spot with a lot of traffic.
Another safety issue that’s often questioned: the lack of seat belts.
Heinecke said buses are compartmentalized to keep children safe.
The seats are close together, have very high backs and are padded, forming a little compartment that cushions the students on impact.
She said that in case of a roll-over accident or a fire, no one has to go through the bus and unbuckle 40 students when they are trying to get out quickly.
“I am not an advocate of seat belts on school buses,” she said.
If Williams and Ramsey pass the driving test, they can be placed on the district’s substitute driver list. West Valley has 23 routes. Full-time drivers work split shifts, from 7 to 9 a.m. and 2:15 to 4:15 p.m. There are also opportunities for drivers to work field trips and outings for sports.
Of the 3,800 students in the district, 1,500 to 1,700 students take the bus.
Heinecke said the district has about 10 substitute drivers, but is looking for six to eight more.
When a full-time position becomes available, the district hires from its substitute list.
Williams said he is semi-retired as a computer consultant and was looking for a little extra money. His brother-in-law is a bus driver in the Mead School District and it sounded like something he wanted to do.
Heinecke said substitute drivers take on a lot of the expense for their training. They don’t get paid for their time, plus they have to get their commercial driver’s license permit and certification in CPR and first aid.
Heinecke was a school bus driver with West Valley, but now trains new drivers and works in the transportation department. When she was driving, she loved being on the same schedule as her children. It’s a job people often keep for a very long time – Heinecke said one of their drivers has been with them since 1978 and is now driving grandkids of her original students.
“The best job I’ve ever had is as a bus driver,” she said.