BRADENTON -- It's Thursday afternoon and Diana Spicer is running late -- 13 minutes late, to be exact.
King Middle School lets students out at 3:40 p.m. and Spicer, a 32-year veteran Manatee County bus driver, is normally there no later than 3:30 p.m. to pick up 16 exceptional education students and take them home on her big yellow bus.
She was held up at Manatee High and didn't end up pulling out of the King Middle bus loop until 3:59 p.m. after loading two wheelchairs and the rest of the students upon arrival at the school at 3:53 p.m. If all of her 22 Manatee High students take the bus, she's always late to King.
"Some days all the students ride, some days they don't," she says as the bus pulls out heading south on 75th Street toward Manatee Avenue West.
On her route, Spicer, 65,
crosses railroad tracks several times, navigates side streets, stop signs and end-of-day traffic, all while keeping a watchful eye over students with Janice Grady's help. Grady, 61, is a 27-year bus aide.
This is one of many scenes that play out day after day, bus after bus, in Manatee County. For many students -- approximately 16,000 daily in Manatee -- a bus driver or attendant is the first school employee students see in the morning and the last they see in the afternoon.
The Manatee County School District's $12 million enterprise employs 275 people who run 162 routes a day with a fleet of 216 buses burning 3,800 gallons of fuel a day covering 20,000 miles crisscrossing the county with school children. Inhouse technicians and mechanics, of which there are 30, handle repairs for all but the most high-level jobs. They also service the district "white fleet" of cars and vans and can repair golf carts used for transportation at schools.
The transportation department has its challenges. Hiring, training and retaining drivers is a constant issue because the hours are terrible and pay is low. Bus drivers, like other motorists, can make errors, and managing up to 77 students while navigating traffic is difficult, even for the most even-tempered folks.
In Manatee County, most drivers make $12.27 an hour and work a split shift, one morning run and an afternoon run. The Transportation Department's competition: Delivery enterprises such as FedEx pay up to $18 an hour for an eight-hour shift.
School bus drivers get a break during the summer when school is out, which officials say is a blessing and a curse. Drivers who need the income often get other jobs in the summer and don't return to the district in the fall.
With a month of school complete, the spotlight is on the Transportation Department. Parents complained buses were routinely late the first few weeks of school and communication was poor. Manatee County school officials hope the Transportation Department is improving. Director Jason Harris started last November, and has implemented changes and programs to fix existing problems and improve customer service.
"We're transporting children," Harris said. "It's a very difficult job."
Becoming a bus driver doesn't just involve submitting an application and boarding a bus. It's a lengthy process because of its sensitive nature. Applicants must be 21 and have held a valid driver's license at least five years.
It can take more than a month from the application period to getting on the road because of all the district and state rules and regulations for bus drivers.
"It can take four to five weeks," Harris said. "Unless they come from another district with all the endorsements."
Drivers must pass an annual district-required physical, being able to evacuate a bus and children if necessary, as well as complete first aid and defensive driving courses. As with all district applicants, bus drivers must pass a background check, a $90 expense paid by the applicant. The district covers the cost of training and obtaining the special license.
Buses are required to be inspected monthly, according to state standards, and drivers also do daily checks to make sure the equipment is running properly. Any time there's a bus accident, transportation officials look into the incident and decide whether to take action on a point system similar to the ones used by insurance officials. Too many points and drivers are released.
Given the requirements, and the leeway between interviewing and getting a driver on the road, it's not uncommon to be hiring and training drivers through the beginning of the school year. As of Sept. 24, the district had five open routes, seven candidates in training and 17 bus driver candidates in the online hiring system.
On top of all the other requirements, Harris has to find drivers who have a good temperament and can handle navigating traffic -- and the headaches involved with that -- as well as handling a busload of children.
"Our drivers love kids. We look for drivers who look at these children as their own," Harris said. "It's that mindset we look for."
Back on the bus, Spicer and Grady keep things running smoothly as they ferry children home. After a left onto Manatee Avenue West, Spicer sits through a few lights before turning right onto 26th Street West and then left on 16th Avenue West before merging onto 22nd Street West, taking a left on 19th Avenue West and one more left onto 15th Street West for the first stop.
"See you tomorrow, Nancy," Spicer calls out as the girl heads off the bus.
Then there's a left onto 18th Avenue Drive West and a few more dizzying turns and stops through side streets as more and more students depart the bus.
For the most part, it's quiet. The side streets are normally empty and car drivers are respectful of the bus. Every now and then, Spicer says, a car will just blow past the outstretched bus stop sign.
"People will do anything not to get stuck behind a school bus," she said.
For as long as she's driven, Spicer has only worked with special needs children with a variety of issues. A long time ago, Spicer used to get health and behavior reports, including whether students are prone to seizures, have asthmas or allergies, are violent or need other types of accommodations.
With new student and health privacy laws, bus drivers no longer get that information, adding another layer of difficulty to the job.
"We're part of the school system," she said. "That information is major for the safety of the students."
Having an aide on the bus is helpful for students with medical or general behavior issues.
Regular buses can hold up to 77 students and may be overseen by only one bus driver. Every exceptional education student bus has a driver and aide, but not every regular route has one because of staffing issues. That can lead to discipline issues, said Grady.
Sometimes Grady is called to help calm unruly buses.
"The students, they try to feel you," Grady said. "You have to be firm, but you have to be loving at the same time."
In November 2014, the Transportation Department started a new incentive program for drivers using money from fuel savings. From November until the end of the year, the calendar was split into trimesters, and drivers earned $100 if they only missed one day during each.
"We've had some success with that," Harris said.
This year, the program was expanded to all union members, which includes more than just the Transportation Department, and is split into four quarters.
The Transportation Department is focusing on hiring full-time employees, partially to offer benefits faster and because it is struggling to hire enough drivers. The department pays for the training necessary for the commercial driver's license to drive a bus and requires a 120-day contract, to keep drivers from quickly leaving for a more lucrative job.
The department updated radio equipment by adding another line for bus drivers to be able to communicate with others and dispatch.
During the summer, the Manatee County School Board authorized the department to hire two customer service representatives to help communicate with parents. Since the department doesn't always have enough drivers, office staff must cover bus routes, leaving those positions vacant.
One of the two representatives has a commercial license, but the point isn't that these employees can be tapped to drive a bus route if necessary, Harris said.
"We want to keep them in the office," he said. "We want parents to know they can call and talk to someone live."
In the future, Harris wants to focus on hiring and retaining enough drivers to create a pool of substitutes so there's no interruption in service for schools and students.
He also wants to look into student-tracking technology so parents can log on to mobile devices and see when and where their children get on or off bus.
"The technology is out there," he said.
In the end, it's more than just a job for drivers such as Spicer. She doesn't typically head back into the transportation center after her afternoon shift until the last student is dropped off 8 miles from King Middle School -- some days at 4:55 p.m.
"You have got to want to be there for the children," she said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.