Nancy Swiatkwich was a recently divorced mom of three, who was none too pleased with the performance of the driver who took her kids to school, when a friend who worked for the district, Kathy Donaldson, told her to go see Jim Wojicicki, the school’s transportation manager at the time.
Before she quite knew what happened, she was signed up to undergo background checks and driving classes, she said.
“I didn’t know anything about bus driving,” she said.
Seventeen years later and recently retired from driving, she recalled what a great move it was to drive a school bus.
“It had hours that worked for me, being able to take care of my kids, which was important,” Swiatkwich said.
The relationships a driver forges with students, their families and other drivers also is important, said Tami Smith, who started driving for Brookfield 15 years ago after about 18 months driving for Mathews School District.
“You get to know the families,” she said. “You get to know the kids growing up. They’re part of your family.”
“You refer to them as, ‘Those are my kids,’” said Swiatkwich, of Cortland.
With drivers who speak as glowingly about driving a school bus as Smith and Swiatkwich, it might seem odd that there is a shortage of drivers.
Brookfield Local School District Transportation and Facilities Supervisor Rick Dudzenski said Brookfield is down one driver from its preferred slate of 11, and has only two substitute drivers. Schools all over the country are looking to attract drivers, he said, and Swiatkwich said she knows through a Facebook page of schools in Canada and Australia that also are short of drivers.
It’s a great job if you don’t want to work full time — taking up only four hours a day in Brookfield — love kids and want to serve the community, drivers said.
However, the four hours is split into two, two-hour shifts; drivers are subject to random drug and alcohol tests and annual physicals and hearing and eye tests; and it’s a time-consuming and, for some, expensive job to get into.
Aside from obtaining a commercial driver’s license, drivers have to undergo 20 hours of classroom training and at least 20 hours of on-board instruction, and pass criminal and child abuse background checks.
“It can be very overwhelming,” said Swiatkwich, but noted that she “had nothing” when she started and ended up being an on-board instructor.
Brookfield has tried to attract drivers by paying them $10 an hour while they are undergoing training, which just about offsets the cost of what the drivers have to pay for on their own, said Dudzenski, Swiatkwich’s son.
Brookfield’s starting wage for drivers is $15.65 an hour, and each driver gets a chance to earn more by driving for field trips and away games, and unrelated jobs within the school, such as working in the cafeteria and cleaning, Smith said.
“It’s rewarding,” Swiatkwich said. “It’s like any job: if it is something you are passionate about, you find the good in it.”
Smith, of Niles, said she has no plans to retire — “I’m going to be here until the end of time” – and loves to see the students she carried around growing up, getting driver’s licenses and having kids of their own.
“When the kids get on the bus and they call you auntie or mom, they’re connected to you,” Smith said.