When the Mexico School District No. 59 returns for the 2019-20 school year next week, 17 drivers will be among the first people to see the approximate 1,000 students who ride the bus. They are the first line when it comes to student safety, said district Operations and Transportation Director Curt Jackson.

The district has conducted mechanical inspections on all of the buses ahead of the first day of school Aug. 21.

"[The buses] have to be checked 60 days prior to the first day of school,” Jackson said. “We have two inspectors that inspect those and then [we] perform any necessary maintenance. That's basically our summer.”

Buses also are cleaned and detailed in preparation for the new school year. School registration closed Friday, and now Jackson and his assistant Jennifer Fowler will use that information to plan bus routes. Drivers will receive a notification this week on their routes and schedules, as some may be needed for field trips and other out-of-school hour events, such as athletics.

"We try to get all the kids that are bus eligible on buses," Jackson said.

The district will run 17 routes, which means between 850 to 1,000 students per school day. The district averaged around 900 per day for the 2018-19 school year, which translates to 230,000 miles for the year among all the routes.

"The way Audrain County is, we've got [students] way north and way south, so we have kids right on the county lines," Jackson said.

An initial proposal to put bus drivers on an hourly pay schedule was voted down last month. A work session to hash out details on bus driver compensation was to be held Monday evening. The original proposal would have increased pay for most drivers, but a few with shorter routes would have experienced a pay decrease in the switchover from a route-based payment to an hourly wage.

"I've got a lot of retired [drivers] that do this to supplement their income, I have maintenance secretaries, teachers driving. It's a mixture," Jackson said.

Drivers have to go through mandatory annual training before the school year, which was held this year at Community R-6 for five area school districts. Drivers also attend monthly meetings for continuing safety education.

"We basically have one goal in this department and that's transport the kids to and from school safely," Jackson said.

The district participated in a stop arm safety violation survey in the last year. While district-level results were not available through the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Service, state results were available. Stop arm violations were notated if a vehicle passed a bus with an extended stop sign and flashing red lights. Around 3,200 Missouri bus drivers participated in the safety survey April 10 and noted 844 total violations.

Nationwide there were 95,319 reported violations, which means there were more than 95,000 instances in which a child could have been hit by a passing vehicle, Jackson said. Mexico averages around 100 violations with an average maximum of six in a day, he said.

Drivers track this data, along with two exterior-focused camera on every bus. Each district bus has five cameras. Two are focused on the students, one on the driver. A camera records what the driver sees and another records just below the stop arm.

The district has general rules and expectations for bus riders and their parents. Students are expected to be at their stop by the time the bus arrives and to stay at least 10 feet from the road until it stops. Parents should contact the transportation department if they know their student won't be riding the bus.

Drivers conduct a mandatory 40-point safety check before it leaves the district's bus lot. Missouri does an unannounced inspection on buses sometime in September, and then also will check all buses in Missouri in April.

The biggest difficulty facing the transportation department is acquiring drivers.

"You can't go anywhere in the United States somewhere where there isn't a bus with a [help wanted] sign on it," Jackson said. "They're just not knocking down the door."

One possible reason for the shortage of drivers is that some people are intimidated by the large vehicles.

"If you give me 15 minutes, I can show that bus is not hard to drive," Jackson said. "It just takes practice."

Getting drivers is a nationwide epidemic is only going to get harder, he said. Training requirements will change in February.

"Jennifer and I are certified drivers trainers. In February, if we don't get what they call a TPN license through the federal government, then we will not be able to train drivers," Jackson said.

He and Fowler are working toward receiving this license, he said.

cdunlap@gatehousemedia.com