By Molly Miron, Special to the Pioneer
A miniature yellow school bus, the mailbox for Ken and Cindy Stevens, hints at their occupations. The real thing graces their front yard.
Ken has logged 35 years with the Bemidji School District, first driving bus for special education students and now managing route mapping and driver training. Cindy, now in her 30th year at the wheel of the big buses, plans to retire sometime this year.
“We met driving,” said Cindy.
“We were breakfast buddies,” said Ken.
Bemidji School District covers 835 square miles and transports students on 68 routes, Ken said. The fleet covers 1.2 million miles per year.
“It’s as much as the smaller states out East,” Ken said of the vast area served by Bemidji school buses.
In addition to their duties with the district, Ken and Cindy farm in Lammers Township, raising Black Angus cattle and small grains. They also keep a flock of laying hens and a pair of horses.
Ken said he was working construction and at a gas station in Crookston, Minn., when his boss asked if he would help him out by taking some shifts driving students. So he took the test and earned a license. When he moved to Bemidji about a year later, he was invited to drive for this district.
Cindy started driving because of the family-friendly work schedule.
“I knew I wanted a job where I could have the days off when my kids were off school,” Cindy said. The couple has four grown children and four grandchildren.
Ken said school bus driver training and testing were looser than they are now.
“In those days, you just drove the bus around the parking lot a couple of times,” Ken said. “That was in the gear jammer days.”
“If you could steer the bus and shift, they let you drive,” Cindy added.
Testing is more rigorous now, they said.
Ken said other improvements include Wi-Fi installed on some buses for athletic trips and long routes so riders can access their homework when they ride to school or back home.
Cindy started her career on a route south of Bemidji for the Horace May Elementary School. During that time, Cindy said she knew the children from their first day of kindergarten to their graduation parties. She said grown men and women often ask her if she was the Bear Bus driver for them. The buses are labeled with pictures of animals.
“Now in Solway, I’m the Fish Bus,” she said. “I will miss it. My favorite part of driving is watching the kids grow.”
Ken and Cindy said the district has procedures for bus safety, discipline and efficiency of routes. For example, Cindy keeps her bus at home because she picks up students in the Solway area. It is more economical for the district to start her route from her driveway, rather than go into town to bring a bus to the route.
As for discipline, Ken said student infractions must be reported and students can be suspended from riding the bus if their behavior is too unruly. Cindy said she has seldom had to write up a student complaint.
“Cindy has such excellent rapport with the kids,” Ken said.
“I make a point of learning all their names,” she said. She also - in the past when rules were less formal - treated the riders at stops by tossing handfuls of candy over her shoulders for a kid scramble. She also dressed as a witch for Halloween and attached a broom to the school bus grille.
Cindy still holds coloring contests to mark holidays. She supplies the pictures, crayons and markers and awards prizes in all age categories. She then mounts the children’s work inside her bus above the windows. The children also like her to participate in their special school activities. Recently, they tried to persuade her to wear pajamas when they celebrated pajama day at school. Cindy decided pajamas would be too difficult for driving and declined that invitation, but she will wear a special hat on hat days.
“The kids always like me to participate in anything they’re doing,” she said.