By Andralena Miller
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON – The early morning rush of volunteers setting up equipment, the lacing up of western-style boots, the smell of freshly fried fish, the camaraderie of competitors from across the heart of Texas. Sounds like a typical day at the rodeo, right? Not quite. Try a typical day at the Road-e-o.
Thirty-three school bus drivers from Central Texas took part in the Heart of Texas Bus Road-e-o regional competition Saturday at Sparta Elementary School in Belton. Volunteers and officials came as early as 4 a.m. to set up two driving obstacle courses that assessed driving maneuvers.
The drivers arrived at 8 a.m. to take a timed, 25-question written test that assessed their general knowledge of bus driving, including the loading distance when picking up students, railroad crossings, checking mirrors and other rules and regulations.
The competition was divided into three categories: conventional, transit and special education. Though handling characteristics were different for each category, all bus drivers had to take a written test, perform a pre-trip test of their bus and drive through an obstacle course that assesses real-life knowledge.
"It's a measurement to every little detail," said Jackie Martin, Belton Independent School District transportation director.
She is also the secretary and the president-elect of the Texas Association of Pupil Transportation.
The conventional category assesses a driver's knowledge of a "regular" bus with the engine at the front of the vehicle.
The transit category tests the knowledge of drivers who operate what is commonly known as the "flat-nosed bus." For the buses in the competition, the engine is located beside the driver.
The events for the conventional and transit categories were stop line, right turn, curb line park, back up, parallel parking, student loading, off-set alley, diminishing clearance, railroad crossing and straight line.
The special education category had a different obstacle course from the other two categories. In this category, teams of two, a driver and an attendant, are assessed on how they handle student behavior on the bus, which includes wheelchair loading and tie-down, car seating and harnessing.
Real students were a part of the course. There is also a "TLC monitor," which is water in a bowl that measures their tender, loving care – how smoothly they can move around the course.
"We like to call this a learning event," said Liz Carter, the transportation director of Groesbeck ISD. Carter, along with her mother, Gloria Barber, the transportation director of Marlin ISD, were in charge of the setup of the special education course.
Both directors said when faced with this course, the bus drivers will learn what and what not to do.
"We are in this for the safety of the kids," Carter said.
Learning was one of the main objectives for the Road-e-o. The purpose of the event is "to enhance their skills in both knowledge and driving," Martin said.
Vendors sponsor the event, providing the supplies, food and money needed.
"It takes a lot of (volunteers from the) district pulling together to get this done," Martin said.
As for the bus drivers, Marty Smonko, KISD operations specialist, said his district's bus drivers spent an average of 18 to 20 hours a week for several weeks to prepare for the event.
"It's a good time for training and for camaraderie," Martin said. "It's also fun."
As the bus drivers waited for their numbers to be called to start their driving assessments, they talked about how much they love what they do.
"I am just out to have fun, win or lose," said Mary Condon, a Belton ISD bus driver.
Toni Williams, also a bus driver for Belton ISD, agreed.
"I do it for fun, for the competition and to learn," she said.
She also said she enjoyed meeting new people.
Tyrone Powell, a bus driver for Killeen ISD, talked about the benefits of having the competition.
"It's a good test of your skills," he said.
Three conventional, two transit and two special education overall winners will go to the state finals on June 17 in Corpus Christi. State-level winners will compete in the national competition in late fall.
For more information on the Texas Association of Pupil Transportation, visit http://www.tapt.com.
Central Texas Road-e-o winners
Conventional winners: first place, Linda Kleindienst of Killeen ISD; second place, Debbie Cook of KISD; third place, Tyrone Powell of KISD.
Transit winners: first place, Kimberley Manning of Temple ISD; second place, Diane Daly of Rio Brazos; third place, Carolyn Keeton of Temple ISD.
Special eduction: first place, Jeffery Brown and Deana Mallow of KISD; second place, Mary Baldree and Paula Kepler of Lampasas ISD, and third place, Quentin Branch and Veronica Branch of KISD.
Division I – first place, Caden Moore; second place, Mirium Iqbar.
Division II – first place, Courtney White; second place, Mayra Perez; third place, Jacob Cheek.
Division III – first place, Noah Sartor; second place, Christina Ellis; third place, Dakota Ochoa.