They venture where few adults dare to go.
They see your kids at their worst.
And they’re armed only with a fluorescent-green safety vest that doubles as a badge to keep law and order where there is none.
The role of a school bus aide has taken on a higher profile in Buffalo these days, now that there’s a big demand – and short supply.
The Buffalo Public Schools – under pressure from parents and city officials – could hire as many as 300 more bus aides if the district can come up with the money.
But there’s another problem: finding people willing to do the job.
The pay isn’t great.
The hours can be crummy.
And, of course, there are the kids.
“I’ll be honest with you,” said bus aide Theresa Penkalski, “on my first day, I had a little girl who punched me, stomped on my foot and spit in my face.”
Buffalo has roughly 400 aides for its 667 buses, but it’s a challenge keeping them, school officials said. A couple of dozen or more can call into work on any given day. At least 4 in 10 end up quitting before the end of each school year, the district estimates.
“Some people don’t have the capacity and the spirit to deal with kids,” said bus aide Freddie Smith. “They thought it would be different than it is. A lot of them stay two days and they’re gone – they never come back.”
And it’s not just a Buffalo problem.
Williamsville is exploring the idea of adding aides on its elementary school buses, but wonders whether it can attract enough applicants.
The job is no easier in the suburbs. Who can forget the cellphone video of a 68-year-old grandmother being tormented during her stint as a bus aide for the Greece school district outside Rochester? The middle school students cursed her, threatened her, and mocked her weight and appearance before she broke down in tears.
Smith and Penkalski were among the bus aides inside the Walden Avenue terminal on a recent morning. By 6 a.m., they start gathering there – the largest of five bus hubs across the city – to be dispatched on their morning runs. They return around 9:30 a.m. after drop-off, disperse for a few hours and come back by 1:30 p.m. in time for afternoon pickup.
“I’ll put it this way,” said Smith, 65. “In the morning time, kids are sleepy. In the afternoon, they get a little riled up, because school is out and they’re ready to go.”
Public perception is that the school bus ride can be a bit chaotic: the poking, the teasing, the cursing, the rowdiness, the arguing, the bullying, the fighting, the up and down and moving around the bus.
It’s all true, Penkalski said.
“You have a lot of behavioral problems,” said Penkalski, 63, one of the veterans. “They don’t want to sit. They don’t want to use their seat belts. They don’t like to take directions.”
There was the one little girl on Penkalski’s bus, for example, whose behavior landed her a permanent seat at the front – but she still kept kicking all the kids on their way off.
Penkalski was once called aboard a bus for reinforcement, because kids were throwing chestnuts at the driver.
Smith talked about having to reel in one boy who kept trying to open the backdoor of the bus while it was moving.
“They’re fast,” Smith said, “and they’re sneaky.”
$4 million more is needed
Buffalo had a full complement of bus aides until those positions were cut in two consecutive budgets starting in 2013, school officials said.
Those cuts have become a hot topic in recent weeks, after allegations of sexual assaults on two separate buses that didn’t have aides, prompting a parent group to file a federal complaint to require an aide on every city school bus.
School officials have said the assault claims are unfounded.
Nonetheless, the district has rolled out a plan to ensure that the public and parents feel that the children are safe while under school care.
Funding is the first problem. The district would need an additional $4 million for 312 more bus aides in the next school year to restore staffing to what it was three years ago. School officials have asked the city to help pay the cost by upping its funding to the district by at least $2 million.
The discussion is continuing.
“Without the aides on the bus, I can’t see how the drivers do it,” said Smith, who serves as president of the transportation aides union in Buffalo. “It’s even hard for us to keep control of the bus. Can you imagine without an aide?”
Smith acknowledged, however, that behavior can vary from bus to bus, and that not every bus may need an aide. Support from parents and building principals plays a big role in the behavior of a busload of children, Smith said.
A no-nonsense aide who lays down the rules helps, too.
“That’s the way you have to do it,” Penkalski said, “because the minute they think they can bully you and push you around, they’re going to come for you. They’re kids.”
Danielle Brown, 30, has been a bus aide for a year.
“The more kids see you hovering around and checking the bus, the less they do,” Brown said.
As a last resort, Smith – a retired county employee – will write up the problem kids, leaving a paper trail that could lead to their removal from the bus. This would mean that the child would have to find other ways of getting to and from school, at least temporarily.
“I hate to do that,” Smith said, “but sometimes I have no choice.”
Carolyn Meadows, 56, has been a bus aide for five years. More bus aides are needed in the district, she said, but they need to be aides who take the job seriously.
On her bus, for instance, the kids ask Meadows how she always knows what they’re up to. “Hey, I have kids,” Meadows will tell them. “I don’t have to turn around because I already know what you’re doing.”
Shortage of support people
But the kids aren’t the only reason the district has trouble keeping bus aides, school officials said.
Pay for bus aides starts at $10.50 an hour.
The position is only part time.
And working the split shift can be difficult.
Bus aides miss out on a paycheck during school breaks and don’t receive unemployment benefits in the summer months.
“The position is only for 10 months, and start times can be as early as 6:30 a.m., which, as a practical matter, can be very challenging for some individuals,” said Will Keresztes, the Buffalo district’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement.
Buffalo also isn’t the only school district in this quandary.
The Williamsville Central School District is studying the idea of adding aides to elementary school buses, a request routinely brought up by parents, said Thomas R. Maturski, assistant superintendent for finance and management services.
Besides the cost, the labor shortage is a consideration.
“That’s definitely the case,” Maturski said. “In many area school districts, there is a difficulty obtaining bus drivers, school monitors – all those support people who are in schools to do this type of work. We constantly have ads out, as do the neighboring school districts.”
Buffalo has been searching for solutions, including passing off the responsibility for bus aides onto its transportation provider, First Student. The company promptly declined.
Now, the district is trying to get the residency requirement for bus aides waived to widen its pool of potential applicants. It may consider offering single shifts in hopes of making the job a little more appealing.
The district also has approached its other unions about filling in as bus aides when there’s a shortage.
“There’s no reason, for example, why a teacher aide who works in the building can’t double as a bus aide to and from school,” Keresztes recently told Common Council members at a City Hall meeting.
“It’s not a hard job,” Penkalski said. “You just have to make sure you come every day to do what you’re supposed to do.”
And in the end, Penkalski and Smith said, they still like working with the children.
“You’re not supposed to get attached to the kids,” Penkalski said, “but you always manage to.”
Penkalski, in fact, went home after that tough first day on the bus ready to quit. Her daughter gave her a pep talk and told her not to get pushed around by little kids.
That was 22 years ago.
“I got up for work the next day,” Penkalski said, “and here I am.”