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UPDATE | Bus Count Week kicks off on Monday

Fifth-grader Isabelle Grimm boards the No. 31 bus Wednesday to get ready for the trip home after a long day at elementary school. - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
Fifth-grader Isabelle Grimm boards the No. 31 bus Wednesday to get ready for the trip home after a long day at elementary school.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

ABOARD SCHOOL BUS NO. 31 — Before she pulled away from South Whidbey Elementary School with her load of 39 kids on Wednesday, school bus driver Sue Harris had a visitor.

A mother stopped by to say she was surprising her son by giving him a ride home. When the boy came up, he looked at his classmates on the bus, then turned to his mom.

“But, mom, I want to ride home with my friends,” he said.

And he did.

South Whidbey school district officials are hoping parents will encourage their children to ride the bus beginning next Monday morning, Oct. 12, the official start of Bus Count Week.

There are very real funding implications for the cash-strapped school district.

The state provides money based on the number of riders on school buses next week, to the tune of roughly $540 per student. The more riders, the more money that goes to the school district.

And for a district that is dealing with a $1.85 million budget shortfall, every penny counts.

“To be counted, a child must ride the bus from the same stop at least three times next week in the morning,” said Shelly Ackerman, membership chairwoman for the elementary school’s PTA. “We are reminding people to put their kids on the bus next week because this is our only shot to capture that revenue.”

This is Harris’ 29th year as a driver on South Whidbey. She travels two routes, one for middle and high school students, the second for children in kindergarten through fifth-grade.

Leaving the elementary school parking lot at 3:45 p.m., Harris drove the 30-mile route north to Newman, Double Bluff and Woodard roads, then to Mutiny Bay and Bush Point roads and finally, Highway 525. She dropped her last student, fourth-grader Damien Baublitz — where his mom was waiting — at 4:15 p.m. and headed back to the bus barn.

Reviews on bus travel were generally favorable from the customers.

Lakota Clarkson, 9, said that riding the bus was fun because she got to hang out with her friends.

“And Sue is a good driver. She keeps us safe,” she added.

Her sister, Leena, 10, explained that there are rules, however.

“There’s no drinking or eating, no getting up from your seat, no yelling and no turning in your seat and looking behind you,” she said.

“Like you’re doing,” Leena noted.

No hitting, punching or spitting is allowed, either. And the rules are enforced, but with a gentle hand.

“I have great kids, as you see,” Harris said. “Sometimes they need a little reminder, but overall there are few problems.”

When she stops to let students debark, Harris uses a Star Wars-style flashlight to wave them in front of the bus after checking for cars.

“People on this island are very careful driving around school buses,” she said. “And they’d better be.”

For fifth-grader Isabelle Grimm, 10, the best part of the ride home is sitting in the back of the bus to avoid the younger crowd.

What’s the worst part of riding the bus?

“Little kids,” she said.

The diesel-powered bus is noisy and the ride bumpy but it’s a clean machine inside, the seats free of rips or tears. Harris regularly double checks for stray items and sleeping kids.

Some children read or play video games; others chat with classmates or tune-out altogether with iPods.

“I like riding because I have time to read my Harry Potter books,” said Andrew Baesler, 9.

Hunter Ewart, 10, moved here from the beach town of Santa Cruz in California over the summer.

“We moved to Whidbey because my mom grew up here,” he said. “I like it; fewer cars, more trees.”

Though Damien has farther to go than the others, he doesn’t mind.

“I play with my Gameboy or trade games with my friends,” he said. “The time goes by fast.”

After he departs, the empty bus seems oddly subdued, the warm chatter of children only a memory.

Until the next morning at 6:33 a.m.

“Riding a school bus is statistically the safest way to get our children to school and that has been and will always be our mission,” Harris said.

For details on Bus Count Week, call Sue Terhar at 221-6100.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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