LAURINBURG — Much like classroom teachers, but less frequently lauded, the men and women that drive Scotland County’s school buses are talented multitaskers.
While keeping a five-ton, 40-foot bus on the road is a task in itself, drivers also keep that bus clean and keep dozens of lively passengers, newly freed from hours of classwork, seated and safe.
“It’s rewarding, and it’s challenging because you’re thinking about all those lives that are in your hands, and being the first one that those children see each morning,” said driver Betty Murphy.
On Wednesday, the school system commended the efforts of the 90-odd bus drivers that daily drive 75 buses over Scotland County’s roads to ferry children to and from school.
“We talk every day about how important teachers are, how important administrators are, but you are just as important as any of those individuals in our school district,” said Larry Johnson, the school system’s assistant superintendent for auxiliary services. “The things you do, most of you with no help, to transport these kids safely, we can’t say enough about how appreciative we are of what you do.”
Over the last school year, drivers logged a total of 500,000 miles without incident or injury to any student.
Next year, drivers will have another challenge ahead of them as children adjust from being picked up at the end of their own driveway to congregating at corner stops.
“You guys are going to be under a lot of scrutiny over the next couple of months, because there are a lot of things that we have to implement coming up that are not going to make a lot of people happy,” Johnson said. “Be patient with our parents and be patient with our students. I think if we do that, it will make the transition that much easier.”
Dorothy McAllister, who is retiring from driving for North Laurinburg Elementary, was named the districtwide bus driver of the year. A pair of the district’s longest-serving drivers — James Bethea with 43 years and Willie McMillan with 37 — were also applauded for their service.
“You try to do the job safely,” McMillan said. “Keeping them in line, that would be the most difficult part. I start off with them and let them know what’s up, and I don’t have any more problems.”
The school system’s transportation department also doled out monetary bonuses to those drivers who had perfect attendance, and the performance of the bus garage mechanics was also noted. In state bus inspections that tally defects in buses, the garage received a 19.3, reflecting a low number of defects. Last year, the average score of systems in central North Carolina was 36.9
“That reflects very well on what our guys do,” said Julius Dockery, assistant transportation director. “We have a few problems, but we’re going to get those problems fixed.”
Currently working at South Scotland, Tommy McRae began driving buses as a high school student and has continued for 25 years. Patience, he said, and the ability to develop a rapport with the students, are valuable traits in his line of work.
“With me, I work in the school so I know all the kids and throughout the day I’m talking to them, playing a little bit with them, and getting to know them,” said McRae. “If I have to say something, they kind of know when Mr. McRae means business.”
Laura Bailey, South Scotland’s assistant principal, endorsed the work of McRae and fellow driver Gary Locklear — not only as chauffeurs, but as role models.
“They’re not ‘just’ bus drivers: they’re just as important as any other member of our staff, and we try to treat them that way,” she said. “They really work on building relationships with the kids and knowing them.”
After nine years as a bus driver, Locklear plans to continue as long as he is able, inspired by the impact he has been able to make on the children he has met.
“You try to give them good advice, too, because some don’t have everything that others have, and you try to give them good advice,” he said. “Over the years you see, they write you little notes and little letters thanking you for being a bus driver.”
The following were also recognized on Wednesday:
— Transportation Employee of the Year: Rosa Oxendine
— Covington Street Bus Driver of the Year: Victoria McNeill
— I. Ellis Johnson Bus Driver of the Year: Donna Gainey
— Laurel Hill Bus Driver of the Year: Tanya Smith
— North Laurinburg Bus Driver of the Year: Dorothy McAllister
— Pate-Gardner Bus Driver of the Year: Susan Mace
— South Scotland Bus Driver of the Year: James Ellerbe
— Wagram Bus Driver of the Year: Patricia Campbell
— Washington Park Bus Driver of the Year: Kendra Diggs
— Carver Bus Driver of the Year: Katherine Burgess
— Spring Hill Bus Driver of the Year: Beatrice Mason
— Sycamore Lane Bus Driver of the Year: Mary Oxendine
— Scotland High Bus Driver of the Year: Gloria Matthews
— Scotland Early College High Bus Driver of the Year: Willie McMillan
— Shaw Academy Bus Driver of the Year: Patricia Monley
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.