With 34 years of teaching experience, Bill Mullins knows how to manage children. His career as a PE teacher in Pinellas County taught him a lot, but he said he is making no assumptions as he heads into his new gig, which brings with it a whole new host of challenges.
He will be a school bus driver in Manatee County.
“I’m learning a lot, taking it one day at a time,” Mullins said as he received training on Wednesday on how to secure a wheelchair. “My plan is to get with the experienced people and learn what I can from them.”
Mullins is one of the 150 bus drivers who will be the first school employee Manatee children see Thursday when the 2017-18 school year begins. The drivers will cover more than 15,000 miles every day, keeping their eyes on the road while managing buses full of children.
“The level of responsibility — you are driving a $120,000 piece of equipment, you are navigating our crazy traffic, especially during tourist season, and you are doing that with usually 60 to 70 kids on board,” said district director of transportation and vehicle maintenance Jason Harris. “It's quite a daunting task.”
The stress of that daunting task, along with low pay, means there is a shortage of drivers in school districts across the country. In Manatee, drivers started last year at $12.58 an hour. Harris said his biggest competitor was the Amazon fulfillment center in Ruskin.
Harris said he has hired eight new drivers this summer, but he still needs 10 to 20 more drivers to be fully staffed.
With such tight numbers, a driver not showing up one day makes things very complicated. Harris and his staff have drivers double back on routes and adjust on the fly when a driver is out. If necessary, the office staff at the transportation center will get behind the wheel to pick kids up. Many are former drivers and keep their licenses current.
But two employees Harris has never had to cover for are driver Ynoki Blackston-Hall and bus aide Teressa Peterson. Blackstone-Hall, who earned about $22,000 last year according to district salary data, has shown up every day for 15 years, and Peterson hasn’t missed a day in 18 years.
Blackston-Hall drives a bus for students with disabilities in the Lakewood Ranch area, and she said she takes on a mother-like role with the children on her bus.
“Your face is the first they see in the morning time, and they are looking forward to you being there in the afternoon. It’s an easy job and I love it, I love it,” Blackston-Hall said. “Once you get used to driving the bus, you just think of it as your own personal vehicle, only it’s longer.”
“I can have a cold or something and I say, ‘No, I'm going,’” Peterson said. “I go in the morning, then go home, take my little medicine, and I'm back for after school.”
Harris said drivers can receive the necessary training and licensing to begin driving a bus in about two weeks, and he encouraged interested applicants to apply through the district’s webpage.