Tonda Russell is in her 27th year of driving buses for the Oklahoma City School District. Getting children to and from school is for her a career, a responsibility and a special joy. "We are the first person of their school day and we are the last,” Russell said. "Some of the ones that I started with in '82 are now some of our town leaders, so they're very precious. They're our present and our future.” Russell is so experienced that she leads the on-the-road portion of training to drive a school bus — for which a special license is required — for new recruits. This year, Gayla Smotherman is among them. "I always was the mother with the ‘TAXI' on her car, so I might as well start driving them anyway, get paid,” she said. "To start a new career is what I'm looking for now, and it's going to be exciting.” Freddie Hudspeth went through training two weeks ago with her. He said he's looking forward to learning the routes and taking the children to school. "I love driving,” he said after riding a bus during a lesson, smiling despite the heat of the August day.
How things have changedThere are more safety features on buses now than when Russell began, such as mechanisms to keep children from being left sleeping on a bus, she said. Still, part of the importance of the training is to learn what to watch for on the road, including other drivers. "As large as we are and as bright as the bus is, they act like they don't see us sometimes,” Russell said. Drivers for the Oklahoma City district go through 16 hours of training, which will be raised to 18 hours later this year, transportation director Stephen Foster Jr. said. Oklahoma City School District drivers make $11,934 according to their contracts, which are for 30 hours per week of driving. Foster said the drivers have opportunities to earn overtime pay, and they make about $17,000 with benefits. The district has about 180 drivers for 155 routes, to cover the absenteeism rate of 10 to 15 percent, he said. Russell is one of the relief drivers who can fill in on any route; by now she knows the city pretty well. "I will retire from here,” she said.
Tonda Russell, a school bus driver in Oklahoma City since 1982, now trains new drivers for the school district. By Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman
Special educationThe Oklahoma City School District has 55 mini buses that are equipped with air conditioning and seat restraints, district transportation director Stephen Foster Jr. said. The smaller buses are used primarily for students in special education, he said. The bus drivers receive first aid and related training at the beginning of the year from other district officials. Bus aides go along to attend to the students' needs so the driver can stay focused on the road, Foster said. The district has 40 bus aides, he said.