On a rainy Wednesday morning, eight Blue Bird school buses whirred and wound their way through a obstacle course filled with a makeshift rail-road crossing, traffic cones, and tennis balls propped up on tiny stands.

The “School Bus Road-E-O” event is part of the Mississippi Association of Pupil Transportation’s annual conference, where school superintendents, bus drivers and mechanics, transportation directors and others converge in Jackson to discuss best practices and policies for getting students to and from school. The group’s president, Keith Ridgeway, said participants go over new state laws and regulations and participate in safety training.

“It’s kind of like a rally, kind of gets them fired up about the upcoming school year,” said Ridgeway, who is also director of transportation for the Laurel School District.

To earn any the cash prizes for first, second and third, competitors had to navigate a winding course filled with eleven safety challenges at the helm of a Blue Bird school bus in the parking lot of the Jackson Trade Mart downtown. Each driver also had to pass a written test. On the course, drivers had to demonstrate to the panel of judges, comprised of Jackson police officers and Mississippi Department of Transportation employees, that they could deftly usher the bus safely through situations similar to what they encounter during the school year.

Before the competition, the 41 contestants from across the state sat in a room inside the Trademart while Benji Britt, a board member for the student-transportation organization, gave them an overview of the course.

Bus drivers listen to instructions before they take the written test portion of the Road-E-O competition. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Today

“Y’all drive the lifeblood of our schools, the most important commodity in any administration,” Britt told them before they took the written test.

Bus mechanic M.L. Pittman said he was not nervous to participate, and described the driving test as just another day at work.

Pittman said he has been tuning up the fleet of buses at the Columbus School District since 2007, where he also serves as a bus driver when needed.

“Some days you have bad days where four or five buses tear up at one time, but then you’ve got to put spare buses in and work hard to get them ready,” Pittman said. “But you know, it’s a pretty good job.”

He described his job as difficult but rewarding work that changes due to updates in bus technology. He likes driving the buses too, but warned the job is not for those who don’t like kids.

“Usually the bus driver is going to be the first one to see them in the morning and probably the last one to see them in the afternoon,” Pittman said.

John Fortson, a six-year veteran of Jackson Public Schools, said he enjoys driving a bus because he spends his work hours talking with students about education and other topics. He doesn’t mind the hours either, but said one of the difficulties of the job is keeping students in line.

Jackson Public Schools bus driver John Fortson. Credit: Kayleigh Skinner

“Sometimes disciplining them is pretty tough,” Fortson said. “That’s pretty much the hardest part but other than that we could stand a little bit more pay, which I think is going to happen.”

Pay varies from district to district, but at JPS the hourly rate of pay for drivers is $11.25. This may change—officials recently unveiled a plan to reorganize the transportation department, which may include pay increases down the line. Over the weekend, the district also held the first of a series of bus driver job fairs, part of an effort to fully staff the department before the school year begins. Transportation officials within the district have acknowledged there is a shortage and hope to hire 30 additional drivers by July 4.

Recruiting bus drivers is a “statewide issue” because of the odd hours required to work the job, Ridgeway said.

“That’s only a four-hour job,” he said. “It’s hard to recruit someone to only work off four hours a day.”

Ridgeway said in the Laurel School District, bus drivers work from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. and come back to take kids home from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Specific hours vary from district to district, but some are considering ways to entice bus drivers by adding pay and responsibility, he said.

“Most schools are trying to do dual agents, maybe four hours driving the bus and four hours in the cafeteria,” Ridgeway said.

There are many logistical elements that can go wrong in the transportation business, he said. For example, kindergartners and first graders often get confused or overwhelmed when they begin taking the bus to school, he said.

“We strive to provide the best in transportation, but we have all the same technical problems,” Ridgeway said.

“Construction in major cities, road closures, train delays. The biggest thing nationwide is people running the stop arms,” Rigdgeway said, referring to the stop signs attached to school buses. “We got a lot of different challenges, but anything that’s moving is going to be a challenge.”

Many districts also struggle to make due with limited resources, said Donny Gray, director of the Mississippi Department of Education’s Division of Pupil Transportation.

“Most of the challenges they have is being able to have the correct resources in order to do the job,” Gray said. “Having the appropriate resources for the number of bus drivers, type of equipment, transportation managers, ongoing training.”

Gray’s office is responsible for monitoring districts to make sure they follow transportation rules and regulations, and also certifies drivers once they pass a skills test.

“My motto is safety by choice, not by chance, so I encourage them to make the right choice,” he said, referring to his employees who monitor applicants taking the skills test. “If they can’t do it, they can’t do it. There’s nothing wrong with saying ‘Hey, you need more training, come back later.’”

To become a bus driver in Mississippi, applicants need to pass a drug test, have a valid Class A, B, or C commercial driver’s license with passenger (“P”) and school bus (“S”) endorsements, and pass a school bus training course administered by the Mississippi Department of Education, among other requirements. All the requirements are listed in MDE’s Pupil Transportation Handbook.

“A good bus driver has got to be a good person,” Ridgeway said, adding that a love of kids is also a must for the job.

Fortson seconded that notion, adding: “You have to love what you do—you have to love kids if you’re going to become a bus driver.

“And you’re going to have to get up early in the morning, so you definitely need to take that into consideration because you might have to get up at 4 (or) 5, depending on what route you’re on.”

Ridgeway also said bus drivers need to realize that while teachers are often responsible for classrooms with more than 20 students at a time, a school bus can carry more than 60 students.

“You’ve got two classrooms moving on a highway—that’s one of the crazy things” about the job, he said.

Gray said drivers are expected to write up students if they repeatedly disobey bus rules, but what is most important is establishing boundaries at the beginning of the school year so students learn to respect their drivers.

“The main thing is setting your regulations for the bus when you first get on (the job),” he said. “And if you don’t, then it’s out of hand. Now you’re going to try to put your foot down? Oh please.”

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Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.