James Avery has been driving a bus for Jackson-Madison County Schools for a decade.
In addition to driving routes before school and after, he also spends time each school year driving for various sports teams – mainly football and basketball at Northeast Middle and North Side High.
“I enjoy what I do, and I really enjoy my work schedule,” said Avery, who made the career change at a time when he needed some flexibility in the day time while caring for his elderly mother at the time. “She’s since passed on, but I keep doing this because I genuinely enjoy doing it.”
Avery is one of the longer-tenured drivers in the district, which means he’s become a valuable employee over the past few years while JMCSS has dealt with a shortage of drivers, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we are fully staffed for bus drivers, then we have about 92 with 15 subs available to drive on days when drivers are out,” said Tim Gilmer, the chief support services officer for JMCSS. “Our numbers were really low the last couple years with a lot of drivers having to pull double duty by running their routes and then going out and running another route each day.”
Avery was one of those drivers pulling double duty.
“It was tough because the kids need to get to school on time, and they need to get home when school is over each day,” Avery said. “We did our best – all of us.”
JMCSS has reached nearly 70 drivers on staff now. With reorganization and redrawing of the routes before the school year started in August, the district was able to figure out how to get students to school and back home each day with fewer students arriving or returning late.
“Looking at the transportation department, everything we do is geared toward supporting the bus drivers,” Gilmer said. “Every decision we make, we look at it as how will this help us get more drivers in our fleet and keep them.”
With about a couple dozen spots in the fleet still open, Gilmer said the district is working hard to get a complete team of drivers to service 24 schools in Jackson and Madison County.
JMCSS is taking applications for bus drivers, and they have to pass background checks and need their commercial driver’s license. Online applications are available at jmcss.org.
Avery said he’s usually up about 5 a.m., getting the bus started between 5:45 and 6 a.m. He takes picks up high school students and has them dropped off and is picking up elementary students about 15 or 20 minutes later and has that done before 8:45 or 9 a.m.
Avery says he has the next four hours free before getting back to get buses started at 1 p.m. to reverse the process from earlier and is home by 4 p.m.
“Then after that, if a team needs transportation to a game somewhere, I’ll do that,” Avery said.
While the time flexibility is a perk of the job, Avery said that’s not the best part.
“I love the kids,” Avery said. “I didn’t realize the relationships I would develop with the kids who ride my bus, but I’ve been doing this long enough now to tell you that when you’re the one responsible for taking a child to school and taking him or her back home for years, you get to watch them grow up.
“You get to see if they’re having a good day or bad day. I’m the first one they see connected to the school each day and the last one they see when they’re going home. And that’s something that can’t be overstated about this job.”
How often does he have to deal with discipline issues?
“It happens but not often,” Avery said. “When you have a few dozen kids you’re transporting each day, it’s going to happen because they’re kids.
“But there’s a lot of good kids in Jackson-Madison County Schools. I know because I see a lot of them each morning and afternoon.”
Brandon Shields, email@example.com