Lack of bus driver, crucial work, hard | News, Sports, Work

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News photo by Julie Riddle Lincoln, elementary school student Esteban Martinez and Alpena Public School bus driver Kim Irelan stop for a photo at the bottom of a bus Thursday morning.

ALPENA – When school buses could not pick up Alpena County students on Mondays and Tuesdays, Alpena Public Schools Transport Supervisor Brook Krajniak knew parents could find it difficult to get their children to school.

Like many school districts in the country, Alpena public schools this year have struggled with the lack of a bus driver. With too many drivers to pick up county students, an illness could mean riots in the county bus garage, Krajniak said.

Dispatchers, mechanics and other transport department staff have taken up driver seats to keep buses on the road, with trips canceled an absolute last resort, Krajniak said.

Bus drivers provide more than just a physical connection between homes and schools. The first faces to greet students as they leave home every morning, drivers often become like family to students, Krajniak said.

Lincoln Elementary School fifth grader Esteban Martinez knows that his bus driver, Kim Irelan, will save him his favorite spot.

News photo by Julie Riddle Alpena Public School bus driver Kim Irelan wraps up a school bus in the morning, as new driver Chris Koehler observes Thursday.

Irelan looks forward to seeing her children every day and continuing the life of her new accusations. She regularly tries to recruit others to consider the job.

“It’s wonderful,” she tells them. “Good salary, you take care of the children and you enjoy them.”

SOMEONE SPECIAL

The district’s 24 full-time bus drivers and four buses run 24 roads, traversing 1,580 miles a day, some of them on icy rural roads and potholes in the far corners of the county.

Three co-drivers who have been in training since February passed their qualification tests this week and are due to set off by Monday. Although Krajniak hopes more people will apply for the position, the three new drivers will allow some full-time employees to schedule long-delayed medical leave and rest, she said.

News photo by Julie Riddle Alpena Public School bus driver Kim Irelan wraps up a school bus in the morning, as new driver Chris Koehler observes Thursday.

Many area drivers crawl out of bed at 3:30 a.m. and do not return home until early in the evening.

The first bus of the day leaves the transport department at 5am. Finished with morning high school and elementary runs until 9am, drivers have a few free hours before slipping behind the wheel in the early afternoon.

It takes someone special to take care of the kids enough to work that kind of schedule, Krajniak said.

OUT OF OPTIONS

She does not remember ever running out of driver options before, but this school year, the district had to notify her parents of about 10 canceled runs, Krajniak said.

Before making that call, she puts every qualified staff member behind the wheel.

“You don’t have to have a mechanic on the bus all day,” Krajniak said. “But they will do it.”

She had to consolidate several runs within the city to compensate for the short staff.

Where ideally buses would carry no more than 40 students, sometimes bus drivers should keep notes for 60 or 70 students as they navigate the large vehicle through four traffic lanes.

“It’s not just about keeping your eyes off the road,” Krajniak said. “You are basically a mobile nursery.”

Several bus assistants joined the APS bus routes on April 4th. Krajniak hopes the newly created position will ease the burden on drivers and attract more people to consider applying for driver positions.

‘A LOT FOR A LITTLE’

Chris Koehler, a young bus driver who makes a trip with Irelan on Thursday morning, was not nervous about controlling the crowd on the bus.

“My voice is louder than theirs,” he said with a smile.

What started as a joke a few years ago, when Koehler told friends he would retire and work as a school bus driver so he could spend free summer, turned into reality this year after he decided to sign with APS.

The job training surprised him, with more to learn about the large vehicle than he thought possible, including a large switch panel using heaters, cameras, radios and a strobe light.

“And on top of that, you have to pay attention to the kids,” said Koehler, who failed his driving test for the first time. “You are asking too much for a little bit, let’s be honest.”

“I’m a bomb”

Drivers relate to children they sometimes watch growing up from kindergarten to high school graduates, Irelan said as he left a load of students Thursday morning.

She looks forward to seeing her riders every day and knows which ones to pay attention to and when she reminds them of her rule “keep your hands away from each other and stay out of my line,” Irelan said.

A mandated journalist who is well aware of her allegations, she can alert school officials when students show signs that they may need help or when she notices suspicious activity at a bus stop.

Although she is tough when needed, her riders like her and her dance moves, the driver said.

“When I beat them, they say, ‘She just left, did she?’ Said Irelan, whom one student recently called a ‘bombshell.’

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jriddleX.

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