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The long haul to get a school bus driver's license

The yard at Nelson Bus Company, Harford County
Joel McCord
The yard at Nelson Bus Company

Getting a school bus driver’s license is no piece of cake.

First there’s the Department of Transportation physical exam. Then the fingerprinting and the background check, the drug testing and for some, sleep apnea testing, all of which could cost as much as $1,500.

All of that is before an applicant gets to take the written test for the learner’s permit, where, believe it or not, you have to know how to handle a tractor trailer when it jack knifes. It’s in the four-part manual on which the state Motor Vehicle Administration bases its learner’s test for a commercial driver’s license, or CDL.

Randy Jubb, owner of Wilson’s Bus Service in Pasadena and Jubb’s Bus Service in Glen Burnie says that’s not all. There are also questions about handling hazardous materials, loading a tractor trailer and holding down cargo, none of which applies to driving a school bus

“You know, when we're dealing with maybe people that are older, they just look at it and just say, it's not worth it, you know, I don't want to do it,” he says.

Many of the drivers are, in fact, older, retired from other jobs and looking to make some extra money.

Dawn Bartholomee, a retiree who just started driving this year for the Nelson Bus Company in Harford County, says getting qualified for the learner’s permit was grueling.

“You have to learn all the different parts of the bus,” she says. “But it helps you to understand what's going on with the bus. You don't just drive. It's not like a car. You got a load of precious cargo that you need to take care of.”

All of that takes at least a month, if not more, which can be difficult for people who need to keep working to pay the bills while they get ready for the test.

There’s a high failure rate for first time test takers because the test is so difficult, Christine Nizer, the MVA administrator, recently told two House of Delegates committees.

“Obviously, the standards are set by the federal government. And it is meant to be a hard test,” she said. “We want to make sure that folks who are transporting our children are safe on the roads.”

She said only a little more than half of the applicants pass on their first try, which means they have to schedule another testing date for the rest.

To speed that process, Nizer said, the MVA has set up a retesting queue in its appointments system “that expedites the process of them getting that second test and hopefully being successful the second time around.”

In addition, Nizer told the committees, the MVA sent more than 88,000 letters to drivers with commercial licenses earlier this month. They wanted to encourage those who may be thinking of changing careers or looking for more work to get the additional certifications they need to drive school buses.

Mary Waddell, the trainer for Nelson Bus Company, says they’ve gotten some inquiries based on that letter.

“I've had a couple people saying, well, I just been sitting home. I have my CDL. I just need to add the school bus,” she says. “I'm like, well come on in.”

But it’s not all that simple to go from a Class A commercial license to drive tractor trailers, to a Class B license with the endorsement to drive school buses, says Jessica McMillion, the safety manager for Wilson’s bus Service.

Drivers with a Class A license have been “driving a tractor trailer for many, many years and they're retired, and they want to just pick up a school bus,” she says. “Well, to get a school bus endorsement, you have to take the CDL process all over again.”

The other problem, she says, is it’s difficult for people who have been driving trucks by themselves for years to manage a busload of school kids and drive safely at the same time.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.
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