Bus drivers celebrate 20-plus years of service

Getting more than 1,000 kids to school on time and safely is no small task.

Long before the sun rises, Ramona Unified School District’s transportation employees are busy preparing for the most important job out there. The dispatcher, who arrives at 5:30 a.m., begins coordinating the routines, while drivers greet one another and saddle up for their morning rounds — and then, they are off, a swarm of yellow, two-way radios crackling.

“We are the first face they see in the morning having to do with their school day and the last they see in the afternoon,” said driver Merit Whitney, transportation supervisor. “We brave weather, other motorists, and whatever comes our way to make sure the kids get to school safely and on time.”

For some of these drivers, this is their 21st, even 32nd year on the job. Recently, these employees were honored for their dedication and passion for the job.

Driver Debbie Ballantyne has been with the district for 31 years, and following in her footsteps are drivers Lynnda Conklin and Nikki Jo Dick, who have both been school bus drivers 20 years, as well as supervisor Merit Whitney and dispatcher Lynette Beard, who both started as drivers.

Lead mechanic Ken Shafer is celebrating 25 years.  

“These are all longtime Ramona residents, who love what they do,” said Whitney. “It’s not just a job.”

Ballantyne, who started in the late 1970s, has seen a lot of growth and change, but one thing remains steady — the students.

“There are such good kids in Ramona,” she said. “From my experience, they are the best kids in all of San Diego.”

Ballantyne finds her job driving the special education students especially rewarding. She is responsible for picking them up from their homes and driving them not only around Ramona, but also down the hill and to Mission Valley or Santee for their classes.    “It’s a good feeling, very rewarding,” she said. “It’s important to me to greet them with a smile, to try to make sure they are happy, that they had a good ride, to make a little difference.”

Another special part of her job is seeing the generations that get on her bus.

“In 1977, I was taking one boy and now I am taking his son,” she said.

Whitney shares the same feelings when it comes to her drivers. She is now a state certified instructor and enjoys preparing them for the road ahead.

“It’s rewarding for me to see them come through and grow and really love their job,” she said. “I love it. We are the bridge, providing the most fundamental service to our students by getting them to school.”

But, it’s not just school. It’s also field trips and sporting events.

In the world of bus driving, it’s a two-way street, and students who ride the bus feel equally about the face that greets them every morning.

“My bus driver is awesome,” said student Matt Wolff, who has been riding for more than three years. “She always has a smile on her face, says hello and goodbye, and sometimes brings us doughnuts. And, if we are acting up, she always corrects us in the nicest way. She really is great.”  

It is a huge responsibility and, as one can see from their years of dedication and love, it isn’t taken lightly. Congratulations to the transportation department for being an essential piece of all RUSD schools.

   
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