Connell superintendent becomes bus driver to help students and co-workers

CONNELL, Wash. – In a school district with about 2,100 students, when help is needed, people step up, including bus drivers.

“Whether it’s building our football stadium or making sandwiches for every student in the school district, that’s just what we do,” Jim Jacobs said.

North Franklin School District Superintendent Jim Jacobs said during the pandemic, bus drivers had to pivot from meal delivery to getting kids back to class safely, during the pandemic. Drivers have also had to adopt new cleaning measures and wear heavy-duty masks to keep themselves and their students safe.

“The awesome part of our bus drivers is that flexibility and willingness to just roll their sleeves up and do whatever it took to support our students and our community,” Jacobs said.

In the district, which stretches through rural corners of Franklin County, nearly 1000 students rely on busses to get to class. In a year, NFSD bus operators drive about half a million miles, because the area they serve is so large.

Jacobs said last December, they were running low on drivers.

“We had some drivers who were retiring, we had some drivers who went out because of COVID related absences. At that point I said, ‘yeah let’s do the training, let’s make it happen,'” Jacobs recalled.

The superintendent would study to get his Class B Commercial Driver’s License, to become a bus driver.

“They take you through the book work so you can pass the four different tests. You have to take a Class B CDL test, a passenger test, a bus test and an air brakes test; how to back a bus up, how to do traffic circles, how to do student stops, how to deal with railroad tracks,” Jacobs listed the learning process.

This is when Jim Jacobs met Brian Conklin, who would eventually become his co-worker.

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“I bleed yellow. I’m a self-described bus nerd. I love big yellow school busses, the bigger the better,” Conklin laughed.

A bus driver for many years, Conklin also helps facilitate licensing for bus drivers in the region.

“Jim was the first one on the docket that day and we went out and we tested and he did fantastic. He smiled at me and said, ‘well I have to share something with you, I’m the superintendent of the school district,’ and I thought that was really cool and then I found out their transportation director position was open and I immediately put in for it because this is the guy I wanna work for,” Conklin got the job.

The sheer size of a school bus may be intimidating but Jacobs said the training helps with confidence. It’s also not the first time he’s driven an oversized vehicle.

“I was an Armor Officer in the Army National Guard, and I sometimes would climb out of the commander’s hatch of my tank and down into the drivers hatch just because it was fun,” Jacobs added.

Conklin said the superintendent taking on an additional job is just a part of the helping nature of North Franklin School District.

“It’s a wonderful thing. We’ve got an athletic director who went and got his CDL so he can drive a school bus and so it’s really important that we have enough operators to do this, we can’t get the students in if we don’t have that,” he said.

Especially when getting back to school safely during the pandemic, is a priority.

“Anything that we can do to get our students into our school district, into our buildings, around the adults, around the staff that care about them and support them and help them; their social and academics throughout this pandemic, if that means driving a bus, I’m on board, I’ll do that,” Superintendent Jacobs said.

Jacobs drives as he’s needed throughout the week. He and Conklin encourage anyone who can, to become a substitute bus driver. They’re especially needed during the pandemic, if other drivers need to isolate.