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School system makes final push for bus drivers

By Laura McMillan

In two weeks Anna Barnett will no longer be rolling out of bed to watch cartoons with her 1-year old son. She'll be driving dozens of children to and from school each day.

Barnett starting driving a school bus at the end school last year. And after passing the general knowledge, air brakes, passenger, and school endorsement tests to earn her CDL learners permit and enduring weeks of classroom instruction, the hard part was still not over. "The hardest part was making sure they were safe," Barnett said. "It made me a nervous wreck."

The Henry County Transportation Department is receiving two to three applications a week and its neighbor, Clayton County is dealing with 10 to 15 applications a day. Many new bus drivers are being recruited. Anna Barnett shared one lesson she learned in her two weeks on the job and nearly two months in training: "It takes patience."

With the new school year three weeks away for Clayton students and two weeks away for Henry students, transportation departments are busy with first day preparations.

The Clayton County Schools Transportation Department has been advertising for bus drivers at the schools.

In addition to this free advertisement, the transportation department is actively recruiting at community businesses according to Recruiting Supervisor, Sandy Eberlein who said, "We hit extra heavy during the summer simply because we know some parents are sending their youngest child to school."

Tanya Morris, 25, of Jonesboro experienced the effects of the inundation of prospective bus drivers as a result of this advertisement when she considered a position in the county. "At first I looked into Clayton County, but they said they had too many people applying," she said.

Morris said that Clayton County did not turn down her application to be a bus driver, but that she would have to wait until Aug. 22 to begin the training program.

"Henry County looked the most eager for bus drivers... I don't believe they have as many people, I guess they're not advertising as much as Clayton County," Morris said.

There is no need to advertise extensively due to the smaller demand for drivers in Henry County. "Right now we have 13 vacancies and we have 15 in training ," said Beverly Skipper, director of the Henry County Schools Transportation Services.

Sandy Eberlein said that there is an average influx of drivers for this time of year and this amount of advertising in Clayton County. It is the demand for drivers in the county that is growing. "We're having to create more and more routes simply due to the increase in population," she said.

With the new routes, the Director of the Clayton County Transportation Department, Michael Jennings said that the county still needs between 20 and 25 new drivers. That number may be daunting to the parents of the more than 30,000 kids relying on school buses, but Jennings said, "We've been in similar situations in the past two or three years."

All of the applicants must earn the CDL learners permit before the training program. Clayton and Henry officials indicated that the four-part test was the most difficult aspect of that process.

Eberlein does not accept everyone who passes the CDL test. "We are certainly in need of drivers, but we are going to use caution in the fact that we do criminal background checks," she said.

Eberlein said, "All routes will be covered." Transportation office staff and mechanics are certified to drive buses for the first day of school if necessary.

Eberlein is not concerned about competing with neighboring counties because she said, "Mostly what we see is drivers living in the county they drive in." She added, "We swap back and forth sometimes between Henry and Clayton."

Henry County Driver Trainer Connie Harbuck said she does see drivers coming to Henry from other counties. "I get a lot from Rockdale, Newton and Clayton," she said.

Money is an attraction to prospective drivers. Clayton County pays $968.28 a month starting salary. Henry starts first-time drivers with $852.48 a month.

According to Beverly Skipper, Henry County offers bonuses. "If you stay 90 days, you get a $500 bonus," she said. There is also a perfect attendance award.

What attracted Spalding County resident Patty Joiner to work as a bus driver for Henry County was the camaraderie. "Drivers in Henry County pitch in and help each other. We're like a big team," she said.

Joiner, a former Clayton County driver, said she left because she did not receive support from the administration in Clayton. She added with a laugh, "There is life after Clayton County."

Howard King, a Henry County bus driver, said that he does it for the kids. "The bus driver is the first friendly face they see in the morning," King said. "I'm just doing it because I love the kids."

Because not everyone is as selfless as King officials from both counties are constantly trying to find incentives that will attract drivers. Even though Henry County routes are full, according to Skipper, "We never have a surplus. We always need drivers."

When drivers are ready to get behind the wheel, the buses will be waiting. "All our buses are ready to go. They have already been inspected by the Department of Motor Vehicles Safety," said Eberlein

On Aug. 5 Clayton County drivers will climb into the big yellow buses that are sitting in the county's bus shop. "The Friday before school starts every driver will run their regular route," Eberlein said, describing the annual "dry run."

Hannibal Jones is one dedicated Clayton County bus driver who is looking forward to that Friday. Jones said, "I'm currently driving for the summer school kids... I'll enjoy that two week break, and then I'll be ready to go back to school."