HANCOCK COUNTY — For most of her professional life, Beth Wuerch has started her workday the morning way: a 4:30 a.m. wake-up, a cup of coffee and a drive to the bus barn, where a 45-foot-long, bright-yellow school bus awaits her.

Those predawn wake-ups can be tough, she said, but the reward — the 40 students who file onto her bus each morning — more than makes up for it.

“I feel a connection with the kids I drive, and I think most drivers do,” said Wuerch, a 21-year veteran of the Southern Hancock School Corp. transportation department.

Story continues below gallery

Wuerch is one of more than 100 bus drivers across Hancock County’s four public school corporations who are the first district employees to greet students in the morning and the last to bid them farewell in the afternoon. In all, more than 8,000 students across the county rely on buses to get them to and from school.

Providing that transportation — at a cost of about $6.5 million in tax dollars each year — allows parents to maintain their work schedules and keeps kids on a schedule that protects the education process, administrators say.

With a fleet of 43 buses that together travel up to 2,200 miles a day, Greenfield-Central School Corp. runs the largest transportation department in the county. Of the 4,500 students who attend the district’s eight schools, 3,280 — about 72 percent — ride a bus.

Dianna Adams is one of the Greenfield-Central parents who depend on the buses to take her children to and from school. Her husband leaves for work long before her three kids leave for school, and she has to arrive at work by 8 a.m. sharp, she said. That leaves her with just enough time to walk her youngest, a fourth-grader at Maxwell Intermediate School, out to the bus stop at 7:15 a.m., she said.

Each morning when she sees the school bus headed toward her cul-de-sac, she breathes a sigh of relief, Adams said.

“I don’t know what we’d do without the buses,” Adams said. “We’ve got a whole system going, and there’s no way I’d get to work on time without it.”

It takes a lot to run a transportation department. Each local school corporation has at least one full-time mechanic on staff to perform state-required monthly inspections to ensure each bus is running properly.

And it’s not cheap. In 2015, transportation budgets for county school districts totaled more than $6.5 million. Those budgets are funded by property taxes collected from property owners in each district and are unlikely to increase much from year to year, meaning school officials have to be efficient with their spending.

Most buses are driven for 12 years before being replaced, and corporations typically can afford to buy a couple of new buses each year.

‘It’s a tough job’

School officials say they’re careful to make sure only responsible drivers are entrusted with carrying students. State law requires all school bus drivers to pass a drug test, background check and physical examination to guarantee that they can swiftly evacuate all students in an emergency. Drivers also must be at least 21 and have a safe driving history.Christy Hilton, Greenfield-Central assistant superintendent, said that, when looking to hire new bus drivers, she looks for more than those basic qualification. She wants drivers who are even- tempered but assertive when it’s required.

Drivers often have to manage dozens of students — who occasionally become unruly — while navigating narrow county roads, she said. They need to be able to focus while wrangling their charges.

“We’re looking for someone that can stay calm and collected under pressure while caring for a bus full of students that (they have) their back to,” Hilton said. “It’s a tough job.”

Once candidates are chosen for the job, the district transportation director puts them through a training program to prepare them to pass the commercial driver’s license exam, which qualifies them to drive a bus and is administered by the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Drivers aren’t officially hired on until they pass the exam, Hilton said, adding it can take three to four weeks to complete the training.

Almost all local bus drivers are part-time employees without benefits who work a two- to three-hour morning shift and come back in the afternoon for another few hours.

School officials from all local districts agree the odd hours and lack of benefits sometimes make it difficult to retain drivers.

Mike Horton, assistant superintendent of Mt. Vernon schools, said he’s lost a few drivers over the years to companies or other school districts that can offer more competitive wages.

‘In it for the kids’

In all, Mt. Vernon transports about 2,700 students daily, he said. Of the district’s 32 drivers, he generally finds himself replacing two or three each year who leave for better-paying positions, he said.“That’s just the nature of the beast,” he said.

Many have remained loyal to the district for decades, he said.

Jack Driesbach, who started in Eastern Hancock’s transportation department as a mechanic almost 30 years ago and now drives a daily route, said the appeal has never been the money.

“I just feel that it’s an important job,” he said. “We’re providing a service for these kids, and it takes dedication.”

That sentiment is echoed by the rest of Eastern Hancock’s 19 bus drivers, who in all transport about 750 students a day, said Todd Prazeau, transportation director for the district.

“You can really tell that they’re in it for the kids,” Prazeau said. “It’s not something that they’re in for the paycheck.”

Before the first day of school, all local transportation directors ask their drivers to reach out to the parents of students on their routes to establish a relationship. That helps ensure parents get their children out to their bus stops at the right time, said Steve Satterly, transportation director for Southern Hancock.

But it also sparks a relationship, he said.

“We depend on parents to call in and let us know when their kid is sick or if they’re driving them into school that day, then we can tell the driver to skip their stop,” he said.

‘Tough to say goodbye’

Across Southern Hancock, about 1,500 students ride the bus each day.Satterly said he strives to have as many of his 31 drivers return to the same route year to year as possible, which can help maintain those relationships.

Wuerch, one of Southern Hancock’s longest-serving drivers, has driven her current route for seven years. Before that, she drove the same route for more than a decade.

“I’ve watched some of my kids go from kindergarten to 12th grade,” she said. “After seeing them all grow up like that, it can be really tough to say goodbye.”

Occasionally, she crosses paths with students who rode her bus and have graduated, she said.

On one particular morning, months ago, Wuerch was driving her bus, same as always, when she noticed a former student walking outside a house that used to be one of the stops along her route.

“I recognized her and honked my horn, and she smiled and saw it was me,” Wuerch said. “I thought that was so awesome. They don’t forget me, and I don’t forget them.”

And that’s what keeps her coming back year after year, Wuerch said.

“It’s not a job that you just punch a time card, hang up your keys and walk away from,” she said. “We care for our students, and they care for us.”

At a glance

Across all four Hancock County public school districts, 8,230 students ride the bus each day. Here’s a breakdown of that number by school district.

  • Greenfield-Central School Corp.: 3,280 students, about 73 percent of total enrollment
  • Mt. Vernon School Corp.: 2,700, about 73 percent of total enrollment
  • Southern Hancock School Corp.: 1,500, about 46 percent of total enrollment
  • Eastern Hancock School Corp.: 750, about 63 percent of total enrollment

By the numbers

Maintaining bus transportation at the county’s four public schools costs taxpayers about $6.5 million each year. Here’s what school officials budgeted in 2015 for bus transportation:

  • Greenfield-Central School Corp.: $2.5 million
  • Mt. Vernon Community School Corp.: $1.3 million
  • Southern Hancock School Corp.: $1.8 million
  • Eastern Hancock School Corp.: $908,000

Distance traveled, fuel burned

Most school buses travel four to six miles per gallon of diesel fuel. In all, Hancock County bus drivers travel about 8,000 miles a day, which equates to roughly 1,600 gallons of fuel a day.

  • Greenfield-Central School Corp.: 2,200 miles a day, about 440 gallons of fuel
  • Mt. Vernon School Corp.: 2,222 miles a day, about 444 gallons of fuel
  • Southern Hancock School Corp.: 2,083 miles a day, about 416 gallons of fuel
  • Eastern Hancock School Corp.: 1,527 miles, about 305 gallons of fuel

Pull Quote

“We care for our students, and they care for us.”

Southern Hancock bus driver Beth Wuerch

SHARE
Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.