By Kristin Schultz
NISKAYUNA — The wheels on the bus can only go ’round and ’round if there’s someone in the driver’s seat. Niskayuna Central Schools are among area districts facing a shortage of bus drivers, creating challenges for transportation officials.
In the hour it took to interview Transportation Director Bill Garrison and bus drivers Bill Miorin and Joe Capra, nearly 100 drivers and monitors filtered through the administration building and 62 buses pulled out of the garage and lot.
“We are here for the kids,” said Garrison. “We’re a tight-knit group, a family, and we take pride in what we do.”
What they do is transport kids safely to and from school, sporting events and field trips. Bus drivers don’t just know their routes, they know the kids, the parents and the families that count on them. They know who goes to day care on Mondays and Tuesdays but not the rest of the week. They know which week a student goes to mom’s house and which week a student goes to dad’s house. They know and they care.
Miorin came to the bus garage following his retirement from a warehouse distribution center. He thought he’d stay for a few years. That was 15 years ago. He’s been driving the same route for seven years.
“I have elementary and middle school runs,” he said. “I know my kids and have seen them grow.”
Miorin works mainly mornings, with his day starting at 6:45 a.m. He pulls his bus back into the lot at 9 a.m.
Capra started with Niskayuna Central Schools in 1978 and has been with the district off and on since then. He most recently returned to the department around 2015. He works mornings and afternoons.
“There is no typical day,” Capra said. “I love the excitement and the joy I get from the job.”
Being a bus driver involves more than picking up a set of keys and heading off. Every morning and evening, the drivers perform a 58-point inspection of the bus. They also attend regular trainings and must pass physicals, drug and alcohol tests, and background and DMV checks.
“We’re under a microscope,” said Garrison, referring to the rigid state standards for bus drivers and transportation departments. “It’s hard to find someone who wants to be under that kind of microscope.”
There are currently retired and active public servants including police officers, firefighters, mail carriers and others on staff.
“It’s the best part-time job for a retired person,” said Capra, himself a retired police officer.
The ideal bus driver, according to Garrison is patient, punctual and a stickler for following the rules.
“I’ll drive the bus myself before I’ll deal with someone who doesn’t do their job,” he said.
Garrison also said the job is flexible, with hours available in the mornings and afternoons. Some drivers work year-round while others, like Miorin, elect to take the summers off.
In addition to flexible hours, the transportation department also offers to help applicants get the driving license required by the state. Starting pay is just over $18 per hour, which Garrison said is competitive with surrounding districts.
Garrison said he is looking to hire between 10 and 15 part-time drivers.
At the end of March, Garrison put up a banner on the Niskayuna High School fence advertising open positions. A week and a half later, his office had received three applications and one of the applicants did not return the office’s phone call.
When the transportation department is short on drivers, it enlists the help of mechanics and dispatch personnel, all of whom are trained and authorized to operate the buses. This is not ideal because the department then incurs overtime. It’s a situation Garrison tries to avoid, but he noted the department has to “provide great service.”
The department is currently accepting applications for bus monitors as well as drivers.