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Delivering precious cargo

Monday, Mar. 10 | By Hannah Dellinger
Clara Christian has been a bus driver in Fauquier County for the last 45 years.
Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
In the 45 years that Clara Sanford Christian has driven public school buses in Fauquier County, the closest call she’s had is a turkey flying into her windshield.

“You’ve really got to watch the road and everybody else,” said Christian. “You’ve got to keep your eye out and you’ve definitely got to watch the kids.”

For more than four decades Christian has delivered loads of 25 to 30 of the county’s children safely to school and back each school day. Aside from a couple of broken side-view mirrors, a couple of broken windshields and a deer tap or two, Christian has completed her route every day without incident.

Each morning she leaves her Marshall home around 6:20, stops by the transportation department in Warrenton, goes back to the Marshall area and starts picking up the kids around 7:45. She drops off the children at Marshall Middle School and Coleman elementary by 8:15 and waits during the day until it’s time to pick them back up and take them home.

Christian’s route has changed many times over the years, and so have her passengers.

“I’ve carried the kids and their parents, too before them” she chuckled.

Being a school bus driver is not an easy job, Christian explained.

“It’s a lot of responsibility and you’ve got to really be on your p’s and q’s at all times,” she said. “You’ve got to watch the mirror and watch the road.

Sometimes I say, ‘I’m not gonna do it anymore, because I’ve got to get up early in the morning,’ but I go right back to it. I’m about near the end, I’m not gonna drive too much longer.”

Christian began driving school buses after having her seventh child, as a way to make some money while spending time with her children.

“I was having my children,” said Christian. “I have nine. The first six were grown up and going to high school, but then I had three more. So, I said I’ll get something so that they can ride the bus with me. Then I didn’t have to pay a babysitter.”

Her children are grown and have families of their own now, and yet Christian continues to drive a school bus because the job has become part of her identity.
“A lot of people say that you have to be a special kind of person to be a bus driver,” said Christian. “I’ve had people tell me that they wouldn’t have my job for nothing. But, I like it. There are good things about the job.”

Because of the unique and challenging nature of the job, the county has some difficulty filling fulltime positions.

“We’re always looking for ways to recruit new folks,” said Cheryl Fischer, the Fauquier County Public School Division Transportation Department director. “It’s a lot of responsibility and I don’t think people realize that at first. You’re dealing with the road conditions plus 40 or 50 kids behind you every day.”

Fischer said that there is a high turnover for bus drivers, but that she believes that it is typical for every school division.

“People will do it for a while and then it catches up with them,” said Fischer. “You try the job and some people take to it like a duck to water and some don’t.”
According to Mike Jamerson, the assistant director of the FCPS Human Resources department, the division recently held a school bus driver job fair.

“We set the fair up to be an event where folks who come can go through all the steps to be potential hires in one process,” said Jamerson. “They get interviewed, they get safety training, take a tour of a school bus, go through the orientation process and get interviewed on sight.”

Jamerson said that the most recent fair had about 30 interested applicants.

The House of Delegates passed a resolution in 2013 to make February the states’ official “Love the Bus Month” as a way to honor the services provided by public school bus drivers and transportation departments.

In conjunction with “Love the Bus Month,” the Virginia Association of Pupil Transportation (VAPT) hosted three celebrations for bus services. The celebration for a few of Northern Virginia’s school divisions was held on Feb. 12 in Ashburn. Fauquier County was included in the event.

According to Fischer, other than finding qualified applicants, the main challenge for her department is replacing old buses.

“Our problem is getting updated buses and that is looking more promising,” said Fischer.

The proposed school budget for fiscal year 2014 through 2015 earmarks $300,000 for the transportation department. The funding would allow the department to hire a second dispatcher to assist with the management system and support for other office functions.

Two additional school buses, one for special needs children and one standard bus, were also requested in the budget in order to increase the current replacement plan from four to six buses annually. This would support a 15 year replacement plan for about 12 buses annually.

For Christian and other drivers like her, delivering the county children safely to school and back is a job with its rewards and its challenges.
“When you get a good busload of kids, that’s the best part,” said Christian. “I have been blessed.”

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