Driving a school bus can be stressful, but Doug Randleman came out of retirement in August to do it in Oberlin.
The 70-year-old Randleman, who has been driving for Oberlin Schools since 1986, said he loves children. He was drawn out of retirement because of a shortage of drivers.
Oberlin has nine buses and nine part-time drivers who drive about 400 children in the 1,000-student district. Children who live a mile or more from their homes are eligible for rides.
School bus drivers are members of Ohio Association of Public School Employees Local 214 and earn between $15 to $20 dollars per hour, said superintendent David Hall.
They work just 17 to 25 hours per week and receive no health benefits. Drivers average about five years of experience or more.
Hall said the lack of benefits and hours and relatively low wages has made it hard to attract and retain drivers. Oberlin recently lost three drivers to the Amherst Schools.
Amherst has 32 buses and 24 regular drivers, said superintendent Steve Sayers. The nearly 3,800-student district determines driver pay by experience.
Those with no experience begin at $18.27 per hour and those with 11 or more years receive $21.56 per hour. Substitute drivers are paid $16.75 per hour. Drivers who average 20 or more hours per week receive health benefits.
Sayers said competitive benefits and pay have allowed Amherst to attract drivers from other districts, including the Firelands Schools.
“I also believe that we offer a very nice work environment,” he said. “We are blessed with great students, staff, and parents.”
The Wellington Schools have six buses and six drivers, each employee averaging about 25 hours per week, said interim superintendent Tom Tucker. Hourly pay is between $13 and $17.60 and drivers receive benefits.
Drivers have between 10 to 12 years of experience. Tucker said the school district has been able to retain drivers but could use substitutes.
Hall is hoping to attract more Oberlin residents — like Randelman — to drive. He hopes residents will see it as a community service for a small school district that can’t afford to pay much.
“We need to begin recruiting drivers and training our own drivers,” Hall said. “We need to also work with the union on addressing the retention of OAPSE employees for the district.”
Randleman, who earns about $17 per hour, said most drivers only work about 3.5 hours per day and it’s a split shift. They drive about 90 minutes in the morning and 90 minutes in the afternoon picking up and dropping off students.
Randleman said drivers used to receive four hours of pay for 3.5 hours of work and receive life insurance, but the district reduced pay to 3.5 hours and dropped the life insurance. He said bringing back life insurance might make it easier to keep drivers.
“It’s so hard to get bus drivers to drive,” Randleman said. “Especially for Oberlin schools.”
Randleman said drivers earn their pay. They usually only get attention if they’re involved in a crash or forget to drop off a child and leave them sleeping on the bus and the work is challenging.
Impatient or reckless motorists sometimes cut off school buses, or they don’t stop behind buses dropping off children, which is illegal when a bus is stopped and has its stop sign out. Buses are difficult to steer around narrow corners and badly behaved or noisy students can be a major distraction.
On Randleman’s afternoon route Aug. 29, the drive was smooth as we tagged along to get a feel for what bus drivers see on a daily basis. However, Randleman said he sometimes encounters bad drivers who don’t stop when he stops to let out children.
Randleman, who has never been in a crash, said school bus drivers try to get the license plate and description of the cars for police but sometimes the offenders get away with it.
Focusing on the road can also be challenging due to noisy students. The Blue Bird Bus Randleman drives holds up to 78 students and was briefly full Aug. 29 as Randleman drove children from Prospect Elementary School to Eastwood Elementary School for after-school activities.
The students, who included elementary, middle, and high-schoolers, were generally well behaved, but their conversations created a cacophony. Randleman said 30 years of driving have allowed him to block out some of the noise, yet he quieted students on several occasions. Randleman said students occasionally get really rowdy forcing him to pull the bus over and chide them.
Randleman had to be stern on a few occasions. He kept an eye on his rear-view mirror for misbehavior and was quick to show he was in charge.
“In the back, keep your hands off the window,” he told a student via a microphone.
“Hey, who’s back there cussing?” he said on another occasion. “I’m not going to tolerate that.”
At stops, Randleman said goodbye to each child. He checked the road to ensure the safety of students crossing the street in front of his bus before giving the “all clear” signal with a sweep of his arm.
Randleman also checked to see whether parents were home at drop-offs. He said it makes him nervous if he drops off a child at their home and doesn’t see a parent nearby.
Riding the bus can be confusing early in the school year for young children. They sometimes get get distracted and forget where their stop is. As the school year progresses, kids are assigned seats, which Randleman said reduces confusion and disciplinary problems.
Students seemed appreciative, with some calling him “Mr. Doug.” Near the rear view mirror, Randleman kept a recent drawing by student for him that said best bus driver computer and had an illustration of a computer.
Randleman said he has driven the parents of some of the children he drives now. “We’re one great big family by the district being so small,” he said.
Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.
Evan Goodenow | Civitas Media Doug Randleman has been driving a school bus for Oberlin Schools since 1986. He came out of retirement to drive in August due to a shortage of bus drivers.