When the buses are rolling, all available ears at the Regional School Unit 18 transportation office in Oakland are glued to the radio, listening for calls from the bus drivers.

Transportation Director Lennie Goff and his staff keep track of 45 buses and five vans as they drop off roughly 2,200 students throughout the district, which also covers Belgrade, China, Sidney and Rome. The buses are equipped with cameras, and students sit in assigned seats.

School secretaries are not allowed to go home until all students are delivered and accounted for, in case a kindergartner has to be returned to school because a parent or guardian isn’t at the bus stop to escort them home.

With all the precautions, things still can go wrong, said Goff, who is president of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation. “It is a challenge,” said Goff.

This week, Cadence Norris, a 5-year-old kindergartner in Gray, was dropped off with no parent or guardian in sight, against the district’s busing policy. She started walking to her aunt’s house, 1½ miles away along a busy road, before people who knew her convinced the terrified girl to let them help. After 45 minutes of anguish, Cadence was reunited with her mother, Liana Thoits.

Despite safety precautions, there is always the potential for such mix-ups, school transportation officials say, especially in sprawling, rural school districts.

Each district has its own policies to ensure that the 55 or so students that each bus typically carries are picked up and dropped off at the correct locations.

“It is a complex job. You have times when students are being dropped off here on Monday and Wednesday and another spot on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday,” said Rick Matthews, assistant superintendent in School Administrative District 6, which covers Hollis, Standish, Buxton, Limington and Frye Island.

Matthews oversees Maine’s largest fleet of public school buses — 68 buses and minibuses and six vans, traveling more than 1.2 million miles a year, carrying about 4,100 students each day.

SAD 57, which covers Alfred, Limerick, Lyman, Newfield, Shapleigh and Waterboro, has taken steps to ensure that its 3,450 students are delivered safely to their stops.

Many of the 40 buses, which travel a combined 5,000 miles a day, have alarms that go off if a driver fails to inspect the bus for sleeping riders at the end of the day. Kindergartners wear identification badges for the first few weeks, to help drivers keep track of their names and their stops.

Transportation Coordinator Selina St. Amand said the district has never lost track of a student in her eight years on the job.

“We have misplaced a few because they got on the wrong bus,” she said.

She said the last incident happened a couple of years ago, when a kindergartner stowed away on his friend’s bus, intending to go home with him. He burrowed under some jackets and eluded detection until it was time to get off the bus.

Bus drivers say they develop their own systems to keep track of a busload of children at the end of a long day. Judy Brown of Lyman, who has driven for the district for 13 years, assigns the younger students bus buddies.

“They keep me abreast if anyone falls asleep,” said Brown.

She said she gets to know all of the parents, and it helps to have the same route every year. She said it is important to like the job, which is noisy but rewarding.

“They want to tell you little things. You are important to them, and that makes them important to you,” Brown said.

Transportation officials said the wild cards in their systems are substitute drivers, who, no matter how well trained, drive unfamiliar routes with unfamiliar children.

“I have not found a sure answer to this yet,” said Goff.

He said the best solution is to offer bus drivers ongoing training.

The state now requires every driver to be 21 or older, hold a valid driver’s license for a year, and pass a physical examination, a bus driving test and a fingerprint check. But there are no state requirements for training.

“Training is instrumental in preventing some of the stuff that happens,” said Goff.

At conferences and workshops, the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation trains about 700 drivers a year, about a third of the school bus drivers in Maine.

Goff said his organization has been trying to get its training message across to the state Department of Education: “We haul the most precious cargo in the world.”

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]