McFeely: Retired school bus driver talks about her 30 years behind wheel

MOORHEAD - Bev Olson was a school bus driver for 30 years in West Fargo and Moorhead, and a danged good one by her reckoning. She was sworn at, threatened, taunted and pushed. She had countless students vomit on her busses. She found a dead body....
Buses are parked in the Moorhead School District garage Jan. 5, 2013. David Samson / The Forum
Buses are parked in the Moorhead School District garage Jan. 5, 2013. David Samson / The Forum

MOORHEAD - Bev Olson was a school bus driver for 30 years in West Fargo and Moorhead, and a danged good one by her reckoning. She was sworn at, threatened, taunted and pushed. She had countless students vomit on her busses. She found a dead body. She witnessed the aftermath of a head-on collision. Her bus was hit twice by other vehicles.

Yet, she says, "I just really liked it. It was the best part-time job you could have. In fact, I miss it."

Olson is nearly 84 years old. She retired last spring after spending the last dozen years driving for the Moorhead School District, contracted through Shuck Bus Service.

"I could still drive. I passed all my tests and my physical, and I would pass them today," Olson said. "But I decided with my children that it was time to be done. Now I'm looking for things to do with my time."

She said most of the kids on her buses, 98 percent of them, were great. She received Christmas presents, was invited to school plays, got hugs. But the other 2 percent?

Now that's a different story.

There was the boy in West Fargo who wasn't supposed to be on her bus, so Olson called the school principal to remove him. As he was leaving the bus, the boy told Olson: "You know, my dad kicks the (crap) out of my mom, and I could kick the (crap) out of you."

There was the girl at a Moorhead school who was unruly, so Olson scolded her.

"I'm going to kill you," the girl responded.

The girl didn't follow through on the threat and, in fact, later apologized in the presence of her mother, who also apologized.

"I had rules, and I made the kids stick by the rules," Olson said. "I was not the nicest bus driver. But that's the way it was."

Olson contacted me after reading about the incident in Moorhead during which a contracted driver from Red River Trails melted down and kicked about 20 children off his school bus in the city's industrial park, calling some African-American kids the "n" word and labeling other students with an expletive that begins with "a." So we met at a Moorhead restaurant to chat about the world of bus drivers.

Olson is opinionated and let it be known that she's no fan of the school district's director of transportation, Dan Bacon and doesn't like the way Superintendent Lynne Kovash has handled this situation, but she also wanted to talk about the difficult job of being a bus driver and how things could be better.

Monitors on buses would help, she said.

"But they say they don't have enough money for that? That doesn't make any sense," Olson said.

She knows firsthand that a bus driver is much more than that. A driver is a cop, a counselor, a social worker, a friend, a referee and a mentor to the children on their bus.

"I had one girl who was always the nicest little girl. She didn't cause any problems. Just a sweetie," Olson said. "One day she was being a hell-raiser, a troublemaker on my bus. Just completely out of character. So as the kids were getting off the bus I told her to wait a second so I could talk with her. I asked what was going on, that she was always such a good girl. She started crying and said, 'We're getting a divorce.' What a heartbreaker. So I hugged her. What else could I do?"

Bacon, who drove a school bus while in college, agrees that the approximately 70 drivers used by Moorhead schools have to cover multiple bases while behind the wheel. But he's not sure having monitors on buses is always the answer, either.

"We've found that if you have the same person on the bus for more than a few days, the kids revert back to their normal behavior and then the monitor has to walk down the aisle of the bus and that's not what we want," he said. "Then you're putting that monitor in danger because they're walking on a moving bus. I don't know that there's a perfect solution."

Bacon said he does employ monitors if he has enough drivers to cover all the routes, but sometimes just filling driver's seats is a challenge. Last year was a tough year. This year is better, so he's deployed monitors where needed.

Moorhead bus drivers make between $14.98 and $17.28 per hour this year, figures that'll be bumped up about 60 cents next year. Most drivers work about five hours a day Monday through Friday, but some get 40 hours a week.

There are no "typical" school bus drivers. Bacon said drivers come from all age groups, education levels and backgrounds. They drive for different reasons.

"The biggest challenge I have is keeping them for a year or two. Some start and right away ask, 'Why did I even get into this?' And they quit and that's probably the right decision for them," Bacon said. "But if I can get them to stay for a year, then they have trouble leaving it. They really love it.

"I have college kids who drive and then they graduate and say, 'I know I have to get started at my job, but I'm really going to miss this.' I had an older man tell me, 'I'm going to try this because I'm looking for something to do, but I probably won't like it.' He did it for a year and now he'll probably never stop doing it."

The good far outweighed the bad, Olson said.

She once had a developmentally disabled girl start taking her clothes off because it was hot on the bus-and some boys were egging her on. Another time, Olson bought a winter jacket for a student who didn't have one, but noticed after a couple of weeks that the boy wasn't wearing it anymore.

"What happened to your jacket?" Olson asked.

"My dad sold it to buy dope," the kid said.

But just recently at a Moorhead restaurant, the face on Olson's server lit up with a smile.

"Hey!" the young man said. "You're my old school bus driver!"

"I've been honored," Olson said. "I had kids that liked me. I had parents that liked me. All in all, it was pretty good."