Amid a School Bus Driver Shortage, Jackie Terry Rolls Along | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Amid a School Bus Driver Shortage, Jackie Terry Rolls Along


Published February 8, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 21, 2023 at 2:18 p.m.

Jackie Terry inside her bus - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Jackie Terry inside her bus

The sun is still half an hour from rising when Jackie Terry emerges from her split-level home in Vergennes and into the darkness of an early January morning. The thermometer registers 21 degrees. Dressed in black, save for neon green gloves and an aqua headband that holds back a sandy blond mane, Terry paces around the 40-foot school bus parked in her driveway, making sure nothing is "cracked, damaged or leaking" — just as she learned to do 15 years ago when she trained as a school bus driver for Bet-Cha Transit.

Windows, check. Lights, check. Tires, check. Mirrors, check.

As the clock nears 7:04 a.m. — the precise time she departs each day — Terry climbs into the bus and turns the key. A country song plays briefly through the speakers before Terry shuts it off, and the engine rumbles to life. She flips on the heat as she shifts her inspection inside the bus.

"I don't want any little, cold kid-sicles," Terry says.

Much of the recent news about school bus drivers has focused on the difficulty in recruiting and retaining them. In Vermont — where most school districts contract with private bus companies such as Bet-Cha, while others maintain their own fleets — the lack of drivers at times has forced schools to cancel morning and afternoon bus routes, athletic competitions, and field trips. The problem has even reached the halls of the Statehouse, where Rep. Dennis LaBounty (D-Lyndon), who drives a bus for Burke Town School, introduced a bill last month that seeks to ease the crunch by making it easier to get a commercial driver's license with a bus driver endorsement.

The reasons for the driver shortage aren't particularly hard to understand. The job requires extensive training, the pay is relatively low — Terry makes $25 an hour — and benefits are scarce. It is also challenging to manage a split schedule, with runs in the morning and afternoon and a void to fill in the middle.

All that may be true. But to spend an hour-and-a-half morning school run in Vergennes with Terry, one of more than 2,000 school bus drivers in the state, is to get a glimpse of someone who embraces this crucial but unglamorous work with a whole heart, playful energy and enough resolve to keep a busload of young passengers in line during the ride.

The first clue that Terry isn't your typical driver is her bus itself. Every month, she redecorates the interior to reflect whatever holiday is near, scooping up inexpensive decorations and art supplies at discount stores and postholiday sales. Even on the last day of January, the bus is still decked out for New Year's. Rows of faux lanterns, fashioned from paper cups and bedazzled with silver gems, line both sides of the bus. Foam snowflakes cling to the ceiling with magnets, along with fluorescent cutout numbers arranged to read "2023." A shiny garland above the emergency exit announces "Happy New Year."

"At Halloween time, I put up ping-pong ball eyeballs," Terry says, as she makes her way down the aisle, checking the seats and emergency-door alarm. For Valentine's Day next week, she'll string up confetti-filled bags adorned with hearts, and the kids will get a chance to pull a ribbon to release the confetti and a trivia question.

Settling into the blanket-draped driver's seat, Terry maneuvers left out of her driveway and pulls into Vergennes Union High School to turn her bus around. She gestures at a maintenance worker she once went to school with and chuckles, recalling the time his snowplow crunched into the back of her parked bus.

As she prepares to turn left onto Monkton Road, she demonstrates a technique known as "rocking and rolling" that allows her to see around blind spots by shifting forward and back in her seat.

Terry looks at ease at the helm of the 26,000-pound vehicle, but that wasn't always the case. A mother of five and grandmother of three, she decided to become a school bus driver after holding various jobs, including tending a cash register at an Ames department store and delivering pizza, which allowed her to work nights while her husband worked days.

She liked that her youngest child, a preschooler at the time, could accompany her on the bus route and that the schedule allowed her to be home with all of her kids after school. She felt a bit daunted when she first got behind the wheel, but driving a bus is one of those things you learn by doing, after all. Now, she is seasoned enough that she's worked as a trainer to prepare other drivers.

At her first stop, at 7:09 a.m., Terry watches three students shuffle down the snow-covered road, making a show of craning their necks right, then left, looking for cars or other hazards — just the way Terry taught them.

Terry is a self-described stickler for the rules: looking both ways for cars, crossing at least 10 feet in front of the bus, keeping feet out of the aisle. Parents are depending on her to keep their kids safe.

"Good job, guys," Terry tells the kids as they file onto the bus.

"Bye, Mama!" she yells out to their mother, who responds with a big smile and a wave.

A dark-haired girl calls from a few seats back: "Miss Terry, guess what I had for breakfast?"

"Let me guess — cookies?" Terry ventures.

"No. Spicy Doritos with cheese and frozen yogurt," the girl reports. It is unclear if her answer is meant to prompt revulsion or a laugh. Terry goes with laughter.

"Yum, that sounds delicious," she says. "Maybe I'll try that tomorrow morning."

As the bus chugs down Main Street, the sun comes up. Just like that, it's daytime. Terry stops to let a young boy clamber aboard and calls to his grandmother, who's outside shoveling snow.

"They finally fixed that line, huh?" she says, gesturing to a telephone wire.

The people Terry encounters on her route are also her neighbors. She grew up on a farm in Waltham, a jot of a town just outside Vergennes, and went to preschool in the basement of Bixby Memorial Free Library, which she now passes on her bus route. She attended elementary and high school in Vergennes. So did her children, the youngest of whom graduated last year.

Though she no longer has little ones at home, she considers the 40-odd kids she drives each school day a family of sorts. Her motherly demeanor — loving but stern when it's called for, which it is — has served her well as a bus driver. A week earlier, a kindergartner, grumpy because he wasn't first in line to board, refused to sit down. Terry pulled over, put her hazard lights on and went back to talk to him. She said she understood that he was angry, that sometimes life could be hard, and then asked him to sit down, as she put it, "on his biscuits." He complied.

She also has no tolerance for distracted drivers, such as the harried young mom the other day who passed the bus while its stop sign was out. Terry honked her horn, looked straight at the woman and mouthed, "Get off your cellphone."

Despite having to scold people occasionally, Terry also seems to know how to have some fun. Pulling into Otter Creek Mobile Home Park, she gears down to avoid using her brakes on the snowy pavement, then stops to pick up a clutch of students.

"Miss Terry, when's the next game?" one of them asks, settling into her seat.

Monthly games are a hallmark of Terry's bus, but kids earn them only if they behave. Sometimes the contest is a simplified version of bingo. Other times it involves math. Often, it's trivia, with questions related to — what else? — bus safety. Winners get some small trinket that Terry has picked up on sale — a plastic ring or a small container of bubbles or a paddleball.

Terry is a big believer in the power of positive reinforcement and gives out an "Awesome Award" at the end of each month to a student who has distinguished themself in some small but meaningful way.

Because this particular Tuesday morning is the last day of January, it's time to announce a new winner. Terry pulls her microphone to her mouth as she nears Vergennes Union Elementary School.

"Now, this young lady was very honest. Someone lost something that was pretty important to them. Lucy found it and brought it to me," Terry explains. The younger children in the front half of the bus follow along with unblinking eyes. "Honesty is very, very important. If you find something, just don't put it in your pocket and walk out the door, because ... you don't know how much it means to someone else."

Terry holds up a sparkly gift bag containing the mystery prize, which she promises to give Lucy during the afternoon ride home. The kids break into applause, and Terry offers a high-pitched hoot.

"Honesty is the best policy!" she crows.

As Terry pulls up to the elementary school around 7:45 a.m., the energized riders chat excitedly as they file out, a stream of cozy winter hats and colorful backpacks.

"Bye, guys. See you later," Terry tells them. "Have a great day!"

After dropping off a smaller group of teenagers at the high school, Terry steers her bus home and backs it into the driveway, where it will stay until the start of her afternoon run, about six hours later. She used to fill the gap by driving preschoolers and taking a child from the local homeless shelter to a Head Start program, but those services were cut from the school budget. At $25 an hour, her normal earnings as a school bus driver amount to $100 a day. She hopes another midday route will open up soon. For now, she supplements her income by occasionally driving kids to and from field trips and sports competitions.

Before she heads indoors, Terry sends a text message to her dispatcher, Dee, to alert her that she's done for the morning.

"310 clear," she reports.

Then, as she does every morning, Terry adds a silly GIF to brighten Dee's day. Today, it's a Disney princess.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Precious Cargo | Amid a statewide school bus driver shortage, Jackie Terry rolls along. Confetti and prizes help."

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