Digging Deeper: What does it take to get behind the wheel of a s - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Digging Deeper: What does it take to get behind the wheel of a school bus in Eau Claire?

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Eau Claire (WQOW) -- You know your child's teachers and their coaches, but how well do you know the person driving them to school every single day?

Back in 2015, a school bus driver in Polk County was arrested for drunk driving just minutes before he was set to pick up a middle school volleyball team. New 18 decided to dig deeper to find out if anything like that has ever happened in the Eau Claire Area School District. 

Like many parents, Kristin Schmit doesn't think twice about sending her kids to school the bus. 

"I rode the bus," Schmit told News 18. "I think it's just part of being a kid." 

With a 2nd grader and a 5th grader in the Eau Claire Area School District, she knows firsthand just how willing the district's contracted bus company, Student Transit, is to accommodate the families they serve. 

"When my oldest started riding the bus in kindergarten, he was on the bus for an hour, maybe a little more," Schmit said. "So, I called them and asked if there was anything we could do. 'Cause there were other buses that drove by, and they switched him to a different bus. So now, he's only on the bus for 15 to maybe 20 minutes. So, they worked with me really well." 

But, it's not just the company's customer service. It's also their commitment to safety. 

"It's a busy road," Schmit said about the street in front of her home in Eau Claire. "They make sure the cars stop before they wave the kids across the road. So, I think they do their job, and I think they do it well." 

Schmit said she wouldn't think about pulling her kids off the bus unless she found out they weren't safe. Though she did admit she hasn't personally researched the history of her sons' drivers. 

"I have thought about it. I guess I haven't really looked into it," she said. "I just think that if they're hired then they've done their homework to hire the right people so I shouldn't have to worry, I guess." 

She's counting on Student Transit and the Eau Claire School District to make sure the people taking care of her kids are responsible and qualified. And ECASD Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck told News 18 she knows it's not just Schmit; it's every parent with a child in their schools. 

"It's a big part of the district," Hardebeck said. "A lot of students on a lot of buses everyday." 

Hardebeck said the district has a lot of confidence in Student Transit, and when problems do arise, the company is right there to solve them. "They're very responsive to our needs,” Hardebeck said.

Hardebeck said the district doesn't have a say in the driver hiring process, though she knows Student Transit is looking for the right kind of people. “Not only a person who's a good driver, and a safe driver, but someone who has a genuine interest in children,” she said.

Shelly Theiste has been driving buses with Student Transit for 41 years. "I adore my kids, and they're so much fun,” Theiste said.

A lot of things have changed in the hiring process since Theiste got behind the wheel four decades ago, like background checks, which she said weren't conducted when she started.

Nowadays, Student Transit looks into a person's criminal and driving record after they apply. And, those background checks don't stop once a driver has been hired. The company continues to check all of their employees' records, even drivers like Theiste, at least once every four years.

A Student Transit driver also has to maintain good health and must pass a physical at least every two years. “So, it's a lot different now, than it was back then,” Theiste said.

Theiste said it may be different, but she would argue the changes have been for the better. "I think it's making us a lot more aware of what we're doing as drivers. It makes us a lot more safe on the roadway,” Theiste said. “Again, we want to put the safest workforce out there that we can."

Over their decades of service, Student Transit is proud to say they haven't had any major problems with any of their drivers. But, that's no coincidence. They told News 18 their nearly spotless driving record has everything to do with their strict hiring process."

Though Marty Klukas, Student Transit's general manager, admits their high standards can make it difficult to find new drivers. “We can train anybody to drive, and it takes a real special human being to be a bus driver,” Klukas said.

Over the last five years, Student Transit buses have covered more than a million road miles per year. In that time, their drivers have been involved in eight crashes per year on average, and in just over half of those accidents, the driver was found to be at fault.

But, none of those crashes, Klukas said, involved drugs or alcohol on the part of Student Transit. "If that were the case ... that individual would obviously be terminated,” Klukas said.

Driver sobriety is the most important criteria for the company. So much so, they were actually advised by the Department of Transportation to relax their post-crash policy. "We tested the drivers, and we weren't required in every case,” Klukas said. “We felt that it was appropriate, but again, it was fair exceeding their guidelines, and they recommended that we do not do that."

Klukas said for the three years he's been with Student Transit, there hasn't been an issue with a bus driver driving under the influence, not on the bus or off the clock.

Before a person is brought on as a driver, they must under-go a pre-employment drug and alcohol test.

Drivers are tested again at least every two years and are subject to random drug tests by the DOT, and should something happen to slip through the cracks, Klukas said the company would be notified immediately if a driver were to ever get an OWI at any time.

Schmit said attention to detail is absolutely something she would expect from the company. “Even if wasn't while they were driving the school bus, I think that's something they need to take into consideration. And, if it was something that happened on the bus, while children were present, I think every parent, whether it's their child's bus or not needs to know about it,” Schmit said.

Schmit said she is not about to take any chances trusting her sons to a drunk driver. “That would take away all of your faith in the system,” she said.

Klukas believes the company's clean record should give parents peace of mind. "They can trust, have trust, and faith, and confidence that we're doing the best we can, and putting the best foot forward to take care of our community's most precious cargo ... our children,” he said.

And, even after an applicant passes a background check, a physical and a drug test, there's still a long road ahead before getting behind the wheel.

"They have to go out and get – secure a permit to drive. So once they get that permit, they have to run through a battery of tests. Once they get that, then we assign them a trainer,” Klukas said. “They spend upwards of 30 to 40 hours of behind the wheel training. And, that trainer does not clear that person ready until they feel that they would trust their family member on that bus with that individual."

Klukas said it's important to ensure the safety of their riders at all times. “If you look at our sign, it says you make a difference in the lives of our children, one safe ride at a time. And that's a big deal."

Student Transit has about 115 drivers on staff right now, but they're looking for even more before the start of next school year.

If you think you've got what it takes to be a bus driver for the Eau Claire Area School District, click here.

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