PUTTING THE PUZZLE TOGETHER – La Conner Schools Transportation Supervisor Kim Pedroza goes over a color-coded bus schedule with drivers Randy Swift and Randy Wills in May. The white board in the department’s office is filled with daily driver assignments and destinations. – Photo courtesy of Bill Reynolds
Much planning has gone into developing a safe routes to school program here and elsewhere. But, statistically, the safest way for children to get to campus is riding one of those familiar yellow buses, reports La Conner Schools Transportation Supervisor Kim Pedroza. But it’s not as easy as her drivers make it look. Those drivers safely deliver hundreds of students each day to and from school, on field trips near and far, and to an assortment of extra-curricular events through the full breadth of Pacific Northwest weather. To do so, they undergo regular driving tests, security and safety training and physical and optical exams. Pedroza pulls it all together, just one aspect of which is overseeing a constantly fluid and complex driving schedule, for which there is no margin for error. On those rare occasions anywhere in the country when something goes awry involving a school bus or driver, headlines typically follow. Pedroza and her staff take a proactive team-oriented approach to curb odds of that happening here. “I’m not the boss,” Pedroza insists. “I work with these guys to make sure everybody and everything is okay.” Her drivers say there’s much more to it than that. “She’s a lot like Monte Hall was on ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’” says driver and mechanic Randy Swift. “She’s always got a bunch of things going on all at once.” “It’s amazing what she does,” adds driver Jim Hernandez, one of the district’s 18 drivers, nine of whom are contracted, the other nine being substitutes. “We’re a team,” says Hernandez, “and she leads the team. She does a great job, knowing the kids and knowing where they have to go.” And in many cases it’s not just a matter of transporting students within La Conner School District boundaries. To comply with the spirit of the McKinney-Vento Act, signed in 1987 as the first significant federal response to homelessness, La Conner provides student bus transportation into Snohomish, Whatcom and Island counties. McKinney-Vento was passed to address the needs of students forced to move between temporary lodgings in urban areas, often forcing them to switch schools and leave behind familiar campus surroundings. In rural America, it is more evident in cases where families residing in recreational vehicles must move between campgrounds and resorts every few weeks. Due to so many transportation variables, La Conner Schools now employ 15 yellow buses and four smaller support vehicles. Just recently the La Conner fleet was on the road all over Washington state. The high school track teams were driven across the Cascades to the State 2B Meet in Cheney, just outside Spokane. Golfers Emma Worgum and Raven Edwards rode to the State Championships in Tumwater, south of Olympia. Another student group visited Great Wolf Lodge at Centralia, in Lewis County, in southwest Washington. On trips like those, drivers expect the unexpected. While transporting La Conner High students to an event at the University of Washington earlier this month, driver Priscilla Wills was directed to avoid clogged N.E. 45th and N.E. 50th streets, main routes to the University District, in favor of less traveled N.E. 70th. There’s a reason N.E. 70th has a much lower traffic volume. It is narrow with a wide median and off-street parking. It is not designed with school buses in mind. Wills wasn’t flustered. She deftly maneuvered the large bus past a series of obstacles from I-5 to 15th Ave. and on to the campus. For her, it was all in a day’s work. Work that she’s grown to love. “It’s a great job,” says Wills, who got her start driving a church bus. “The rewards are great. You get to see these kids grow and you really become attached to them and their families. That’s why you rarely see drivers switch routes. It’s because we’ve gotten to know the kids and their parents. “I get to do something that I love,” she stresses, “and get paid for it.” The pay, as is the case across public education, is just as often intrinsic as tangible. For the past three years a student on his route has gifted driver Randy Wills a growing collection of colorful hand-painted rocks, which now brighten a corner of the Transportation Department office next to Whittaker Field. “The kids are the biggest reason we do this,” he says. “We bleed yellow. Once you start driving, it’s infectious. We’re very blessed.” The evidence is in the length of service logged by many of the drivers. Barb Howlett, like Hernandez a La Conner High alum, has been at the wheel for more than 30 years. Jane Stephens, Andi Schmittou and Patty McCormick returned to the fold as sub drivers after having retired from long stints on daily routes. Pedroza is thankful for them all. “It’s a team,” she says. “We really have great drivers.” In her view, they’re in a class by themselves.