The Walker County Schools Department of Transportation is a well oiled machine, made up of a highly conscientious, professional and cohesive team of drivers and supervisors who are “committed to providing the safest, (and the most) consistent and reliable transportation possible,” according to its mission statement posted on the website. Overseeing 6,000 bus riders, 87 daily routes and over 1.2 million miles each year, the Walker County Department of Education sees its buses as “extensions of the classrooms… [and] an integral part of the education of all students within the school district.”
Like a pair of bookends, the Walker County bus system provides sturdy support and serves as the first and last student interface of each day. That is quite a meaningful connection in the life of a child, and demonstrates that while bus safety is paramount, the passengers are equally important, valued and respected. And nowhere is this professional code of ethics more alive and well than on board Walker County buses No. 40 and No. 72 serving Fairyland Elementary School.
Corey Smith and Fran Rhodes are responsible for shuttling approximately 20 percent of Fairyland’s total enrollment of 269 pupils to and from school every weekday. Cory Smith, employed by the Transportation Department of the Walker County School District for over 16 years, has operated a bus for every school in Walker County. In recent years, however, Cory, a resident of Lookout Mountain, has driven the FES route exclusively, which conveniently enables him to deliver and retrieve his son, Jack, a fourth-grader at Fairyland School. Prior to working for Walker County, Corey drove an armored truck. An entrepreneur at heart with a head for business, he founded two companies with his father until they became a casualty of the 2008 financial crisis. The opportunity to drive a bus meshed with his previous driving experience and allowed him to drive his daughter to and from school each day.
Before becoming a bus driver eight years ago, animal lover Fran Rhodes worked at a kennel. Like Corey, the opportunity to be on her daughter’s school schedule was a factor in her decision to pursue a job as a bus driver.
Watching Corey and Fran interact with the students at FES, it is plain to see that they thoroughly enjoy their jobs, which Fran describes as “very rewarding, interesting and never dull.” They make personal and warm connections with the students and families on their routes. Not only that, Fran and Corey are highly trained professionals who regard the safety of their students with the utmost seriousness and attention to detail. In addition to following to the letter every federal law and regulation regarding the safe operation of a bus, Walker County imposes additional safety regulations that must be strictly upheld by all Walker County bus drivers. Both Fran and Corey maintain orderly and well behaved conduct on their routes and regularly instruct students on the precise procedures regarding bus stop safety. They also conduct monthly drills to review emergency exits, such as back hatches and windows, and the proper operation of the emergency break. Additionally, an older student is permanently assigned to count and lead younger students to an open door in the case of an emergency.
Fran and Corey, full time employees, start their day between 4 and 5 a.m. and, depending on the traffic and weather, make their first pick up a little after 6 a.m. and their final afternoon drop-off between 4 and 4:30 p.m. Between their morning and afternoon routes, Corey works in the transportation office where he arranges all of Walker County’s student field trips, while Fran trains new hires and drives Walker County students on field trips. Both drivers keep their buses at their home properties when they are not driving students during the workday.
Fran’s route serves students living in the southern part of Walker County located south of Nickajack Road to Menlo, Ga. Corey Smith’s route covers the northern part of Walker County above Nickajack Road. However, those route descriptions barely skim the surface. To provide a more accurate picture of the intricate routes and the complex schedules they follow would require the aid of elaborate spreadsheets, labyrinthine flow charts and 3-D logistics renderings. This, of course, is an exaggeration but the truth is not far off.
The bus routes and driver schedules of not only Fran and Corey, but of all Walker County bus drivers, have become increasingly complicated in recent years as the result of significant and pervasive understaffing of at least 30 bus drivers. Although Covid-19 has been a variable, other factors have contributed to the driver shortage, such as a significant number of drivers retiring simultaneously and an especially rigorous and time-consuming hiring process. Consequently, with fewer drivers than routes, being able to move over 6,000 Walker County students between their homes and school in a manner that ensures their safe, timely and comfortable transport is a daunting task that would require a team that demonstrates vision, patience, and creativity and is able to enlist the collaboration of bus drivers, administration, teachers, students and families. Fortunately, Walker County Schools Department of Transportation has such a team.
The transportation office, known as the Bus Barn, is managed by Dena Renfro, transportation supervisor, Debi Madaris, transportation manager and William Murphy, fleet manager. Like air traffic controllers at the airport, this stellar trio is the brain power responsible for the entire fleet of Walker County school buses, all driver routes and schedules and ultimately, the safety and well-being of the passengers. While the shortage is unresolved, the Bus Barn team has implemented a host of creative solutions such as restructuring and combining routes and driver schedules (recorded weekly in a notebook nicknamed “the Bible”), establishing community stops in place of individual home stops and offering stipends to those drivers who take on extra routes.
As much as Corey and Fran enjoy their jobs, like any occupation, being a bus driver has its challenges. Fran explains that driving in the fog can be stressful, but she relies heavily on the center white lights. Fran has experienced fog so thick that she has trouble determining whether she is going up or down the mountain. She also cited as problematic the random deer, armadillo, rattlesnake and other unexpected animal that runs (or slithers) in front of her bus. Corey said that when students are not met at their drop-off point by a parent or guardian is considered to be among the most challenging issues facing all bus drivers. This poses not only a safety issue, but it also results in a trickle down series of delays, impacting other buses. In Walker County, only students who are 9 or older, have a key and whose homes are visible from the road can be dropped off without an adult present. He stipulated, however, that even if those conditions are met, it is up to the discretion of each driver to make decisions regarding drop-off, based on unusual situations.
“If I see something weird … out of the ordinary, I can say no, I’m not letting [the student] out here.” He emphasized however, that such scenarios are not common on the Fairyland bus routes.
Among all the federal and county bus safety laws and regulations, none are regarded with more importance than those governing bus pick-up and drop-off stops. According to statistics and backed by Corey Smith, “the most unsafe part of riding a school bus is the drop-off and pick-up danger zone … where all the accidents occur.” The stringent laws addressing these stops apply to bus drivers, students and all vehicular traffic. In fact, the state of Georgia created “Operation Stop Arm” a public awareness campaign designed to educate drivers about those situations when cars are required to stop for a school bus, which is essentially anytime a bus is stopped with its arm down. Breaking these bus stop laws “can result in court appearances, hefty fines and other penalties,” according to the Walker County Schools website.
The buses themselves are also designed for safety, incorporating new, low and high-tech devices and solutions. Corey and Fran agree that a new passenger seat design with higher cushioned backs (creating a padded enclosure of sorts for the students in the event of a collision) is a huge safety improvement. Vital to the safe operation of the transportation system is being able to communicate all bus related updates and information, which is accomplished via a radio system that constantly broadcasts Bus Barn conversations to every Walker County bus and school office.
Additionally, Fran explained how modern buses are designed in such a way that, upon collision, the top section where the passengers are seated, will break apart beneath the floor, thus separating the students and driver from the combustible engine below. Advances in technology have contributed greatly to school bus safety. Most Walker County school buses are equipped with six cameras located both inside and outside of the bus. Also, the buses’ computer systems monitor and record practically every driver action taken, confirming proper use of lights, doors, brakes and speed. An especially unique safety device is one that forces the driver to walk to the rear of the bus to disengage an alarm before being able to exit. This visual sweep ensures that that no sleeping students are left on the bus.
The Walker County Department of Education provides a superior transportation program, and both the management and the drivers are fully committed to the wellbeing and safety of Walker County students. Most of all, FES is especially fortunate to have Fran Rhodes and Corey Smith oversee the safe delivery of its students. They are sharp-eyed, knowledgeable and discerning, yet kind, devoted and respectful. Fairyland students are transported to their destinations safely and always with smiles on their faces.