2017-11-02 / Life in Leelanau

Ode to Bus Drivers

Across the county, drivers take pride in protecting kids
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff


BUS DRIVER Barry Mazurek goes into Glen Lake Elementary to escort the youngest riders to the bus. With one hand, he holds a half dozen eggs and in the other, the hand of his granddaughter, Piper. Mazurek is responsible for getting children and other items, such as the eggs, home safely. BUS DRIVER Barry Mazurek goes into Glen Lake Elementary to escort the youngest riders to the bus. With one hand, he holds a half dozen eggs and in the other, the hand of his granddaughter, Piper. Mazurek is responsible for getting children and other items, such as the eggs, home safely. They wear a lot of hats. Babysitter… counselor and sometimes even nurse.

But no matter which hat they’re wearing, the top priority for county school bus drivers is student safety.

“I love it,” said Barry Mazurek, who has driven bus at Glen Lake for 28 years. “I’m going to keep doing it until it’s not fun anymore.”

A 1974 Glen Lake grad, Mazurek, like many drivers before and after him, was farming when a friend suggested he start driving bus.

“It was a perfect job for a farmer,” said Mazurek, who at the time grew cherries and apples on the family farm south of Cedar. “I could do a route at the beginning and end of the day and do farm work in between.”


TEN BUSES line up on the north side of Glen Lake School waiting for children who will be taking the bus home. TEN BUSES line up on the north side of Glen Lake School waiting for children who will be taking the bus home. His day starts well before his first scheduled stop at 7 a.m. on his route, which covers an area from Cedar south down Co. Rd. 651.

Mazurek’s pre-trip preparations include checking the oil, tires and lights on the bus, which is parked in the driveway of his home on Popa Road.

This time of year, when days grow shorter and daylight is dim, can be challenging for drivers.

“The darkness and the weather limits how far you can see,” he said, adding that Co. Rd. 651 is very busy during his morning route. “There’s always four or five cars of people behind me wanting to get to work.

“They don’t understand, I’ve got a job to do too.”


EMMA BUFKA asks bus driver Barry Mazurek if he can take care of her bag that carries fragile items while she’s on the bus. EMMA BUFKA asks bus driver Barry Mazurek if he can take care of her bag that carries fragile items while she’s on the bus. After completion of their morning route, most drivers are idle until their afternoon shift. Mazurek, however, has a mid-day route, taking Glen Lake students to the Career-Tech Center and back again.

Before the afternoon route, Glen Lake drivers gather to discuss their afternoon dispatch and communications from the elementary office about who needs to be dropped where.

“The kids could go to dad’s house Monday, Tuesday and Thursday one week and different days the next,” Mazurek said. “Sometimes they’ll go to their grandparents.”

Whatever the destination, Mazurek and his colleagues don’t just drop the kids off and drive away. They are in constant contact with the elementary office staff through its radio system to be sure they get to their intended destination.

“They are our lifeline,” Mazurek said of the elementary staff. “They make sure notes from parents get to us and when it doesn’t look like there’s anyone at home, they’ll track them down.

“We don’t leave children unattended.”

Conversely, the drivers send messages to parents through the elementary office. Last week, radio traffic included a driver asking staff to let parents know a child wasn’t feeling well and threw up a little bit.

Office staff also lets drivers know if students were injured during the day.

Interestingly, vomiting episodes are not that frequent among bus riders.

“I only have a couple a year,” said 23-year driver George Peplinski of Cedar.

His route includes the Sugar Loaf and Lime Lake areas, along with the area east of S. Good Harbor Trail in Centerville Township.

A lot has changed for drivers in the past two decades. In addition to improved heating and ventilation systems, the new buses have new state-mandated lighting as well as security cameras, both inside and outside the 38-foot vehicles they’re driving.

Not only have the buses changed, but the students riding them have changed.

Kindergarten students, once considered the youngest on the bus, no longer have this designation. Students attending Glen Lake’s Young 5s program and preschool also ride the bus.

For this reason, drivers with these youngsters on their routes go directly to the classrooms and walk them out to the bus.

To make things easier to identify which bus to ride, Glen Lake buses also have animals or symbols magnetically affixed to the exterior. The fleet includes the monkey bus, bumblebee bus, panda bus, frog bus, lion bus, fish bus and smiley face bus.

There’s even a flying pig bus, whose name was given by the late Neil McCormack, a longtime driver who died May 10, 2014.

In addition to escorting the youngest children, the drivers are the “keepers of all things.”

Mazurek hangs lost articles — such as hats and mittens — in an area in the front of the bus.

He is also entrusted with special, often fragile items. Friday these treasures included a half-dozen eggs and something at the bottom of a little girl’s “Elsa” bag, from the Disney movie “Frozen.”

“One time, probably 20 years ago, I found an unloaded handgun that someone had brought to school as a prop for a play,” Mazurek said.

Students taking classroom pets such as hamsters home for holiday breaks have been known to lose track of the animal.

“They usually end up finding it before they get home,” he said.

What does it take to be a bus driver?

“You have to love being around kids,” Glen Lake transportation director Joe Hobbins said. “Not everyone is interested in driving a 38-foot long bus with 70 kids sitting behind them.”

To become a certified driver, candidates must pass a state Department of Transportation physical, drug screening and background check. They must also complete an “in house” training and state-mandated training and state on-road exam.

School bus drivers hours vary, depending upon assigned routes. However, most drivers work about 20 hours a week.

Drivers at three county schools work under contracts for support staff, such as office staff, food service employees and teacher aides.

Glen Lake bus drivers are organized separately under the Michigan Education Association.

Salaries vary widely across the school districts with a starting hourly wage of $14.50 per hour up to $24.77 for drivers with 25 years of experience.

No benefits are offered to drivers in any of the four school districts.

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