SIOUX CITY | During his first year working as a bus driver for the Sioux City Community School District, George Gengler was pelted in the back of the head with a snowball that was hurled from inside the school bus.
The incident didn't phase the 61-year-old grandfather of eight, who considers the 60 children he picks up in the morning and drops off in the late afternoon his adopted grandchildren.
"I don't think they were aiming at me. I think it just happened," Gengler said as he sat in the driver's seat of bus 39 on a Wednesday morning, a couple weeks before the start of the school year. Heavy rain drops hit the roof of the bus, which was parked in a lot at the district's transportation facility among a fleet of bright yellow.
Gengler, who has been driving for the district for four years, worked as a managing partner for Truck Haven truck stop for 40 years. After just two years of retirement, he felt he needed a job to keep him busy, so he applied to become a school bus driver.
The gig turned out to be a perfect match for Gengler, who loves kids and was looking for a job that would coincide with his wife Barb's schedule. She's been working for Sioux City Community Schools in food service for more than 20 years.
The district is currently in the process of hiring additional substitute drivers to transport some 4,700 students to and from school each day. The district saw roughly 100 more students riding the bus between the 2012-2013 and 2016-2017 school years.
District transportation officials say the construction of new school buildings, which are farther away from some neighborhoods, and fewer kids walking to school are contributing to an uptick in bus riders.
"Parents have a perceived safety factor in their student riding to school whether it's in their home vehicle or in a school bus. I think we've seen a slight increase in riders due to that," said Brian Fahrendholz, director of operations and maintenance for the district.
Finding qualified bus drivers who meet stringent requirements, transportation officials say, is a challenge not only for the Sioux City district, but for school districts nationwide.
Fahrendholz said it's common for school bus driving to be a second career for the majority of the district's hires. He said retirees like Gengler like the flexibility of the job, which allows for free afternoons, and the work environment, which involves interaction with students of all ages.
According to transportation/fleet supervisor Jeff Brown, school bus drivers are required to have a commercial driver's license with passenger, air brake and school endorsements. In order to get behind the wheel of a school bus, they also must successfully complete a New Driver Stop Class, which consists of 14 hours of online training and three hours of class time, as well as attend an annual three-hour service class.
Besides meeting the educational requirements, prospective drivers must pass a Department of Transportation (DOT) pre-employment physical and drug screen and submit to a background check that includes searches of three Department of Human Services abuse registries and Iowa criminal and DOT records.
"The workforce is fairly limited in our area and with the fairly stringent regulations that we have for hiring bus drivers, that just complicates it even more," Fahrendholz said. "By no means would we ever recommend lessening those restrictions in order to make it easier to hire. We would just like to find more qualified applicants that meet the current requirements."
Gengler compares driving a school bus to driving a big pickup truck that is a little longer and wider and stops a little slower.
In winter weather, he drives slower and more defensively. Rather than going over an icy hill with a school bus, he goes around it when possible.
"We do the best we can to get (students) home safely. If we get them home half an hour late, that's better than sitting alongside the road in an accident," he said.
The biggest difference between driving a school bus and another vehicle, Gengler said, is having "60 of your best friends behind you."
Steering and braking come first. To quiet unruly students, Gengler, who doesn't like to yell, gives instructions over a microphone. If a situation needs further intervention, he stops the bus before proceeding.
"Our main priority is driving the bus safely," he said. "Unless there's a problem that's going to injure somebody behind me, I deal with that when I'm not trying to drive the bus safely."
Besides their passengers' names and personalities, Gengler said school bus drivers become familiar with dozens of components inside and outside their vehicles, which they have to memorize for testing.
Over the years, in response to incidents of bullying, school buses have become equipped with camera systems to capture video and audio of the goings-on inside. Cameras have also been added to bus stop arms to help police officers enforce traffic safety laws.
"I haven't seen anything mean-spirited on a bus I've driven," Gengler said. "I don't allow you to be mean to the person sitting next to you."
Maintaining the mold
Although school buses have become more high-tech in recent years, their distinctive look hasn't changed much.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the school bus is the safest vehicle on the road.
Although four to six school-age children die each year on school transportation vehicles, NHTSA says that's less than 1 percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide.
Dave LeGree, a transportation specialist for the district, likens the design of the school bus to an egg carton. If a bus driver has to slam on the brakes or strikes a vehicle in front of the bus, he said the high seatbacks confine students, protecting their spines from injury.
Seat belts are a safety feature you'll find in cars, trucks and vans, but not on most school buses. Few states require seat belts in school buses, but more than a dozen legislatures are considering bills that would make them mandatory.
"Most of the time, if there is a fender bender with a bus, it's at very low speed, because we are driving carefully and not pushing the limits," said Gengler, who hasn't had any close calls. "I drive a couple hundred feet ahead of myself. I don't brake quickly, so I don't have to worry too much about anyone running into the back of me."
Fahrendholz said research has shown that seat belts may actually hinder a student's ability to escape from a school bus after a crash. He said ongoing studies are being conducted to determine whether a seat belt system can be designed to release quickly and easily in the event of an emergency.
Although the district did consider seat belts when purchasing its newest buses, Fahrendholz said it decided to follow the current safety recommendation of not having seat belts. Some of the district's buses contain lap belts in the first few rows, which are used to secure car seats for preschool children.
"If there were to be a fire or a rollover, to expect a bus driver to go around and cut those would be nearly impossible," Fahrendholz said. "We're watching that very closely at the state and federal level and we'll fully comply with any regulation set forth to us."
Fuel is another component of school busing that's been slow to change.
Although the district now has six propane buses, which are cheaper and cleaner to operate, diesel remains king.
The district's fleet of 64 buses don't just shuttle students back and forth to school, but also to out-of-town sporting events and field trips. Fahrendholz said the Des Moines area lacks the necessary stations to fuel propane buses, so for now, he said the overwhelming majority of the district's buses will be diesel in nature.
"We don't foresee, right now, another alternative fuel either, because around here compressed natural gas isn't a realistic alternative and also doesn't have the reliability that the propane or diesel buses do," he said.