Meet Doug Smith: Nantucket’s Only Full-Time School Bus Driver

David Creed •

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Nantucket finds itself in a bus driver crisis less than one month into the new school year, along with almost every other school district in the state. The island currently has just two bus drivers, but only one of them is full-time. His name is Doug Smith.

“I am here and I stay here because of the kids,” Smith said.

Smith moved to Nantucket three years ago. After a battle with cancer, he found himself struggling to recover. Shortly after he was in remission, he was sent to the island as a temporary bus driver until a full-time candidate could be found. What was originally anticipated to be a three-month stay turned into much more than that, and Smith points to the kids he drives to and from school as the main reason why.

“When I came here these kids gave me life. I tell these kids all the time how thankful I am for them,” he said. “Being a bus driver is rewarding. I was at a coffee shop with a teacher before I came over here and told him I was going to become a bus driver. He told me that is the worst job in the world outside of substitute teaching. But it isn’t the worst job. I picked up a young five-year old boy the other day to take him to kindergarten and he was jumping on me telling me he loves me. I had a girl who is in high school who got on my bus and wrote me the nicest note you could ever imagine just to say thank you."

"Those things are precious," he said. "And I’ll tell you there are more of them other than those two.”

Smith said five or six of Nantucket's school bus drivers have quit since the COVID-19 pandemic began. One driver in particular was on island with his wife but had to leave because their rent was $2,700 per month.

“They left because it wasn’t worth it,” he said.

There are two islanders, Jim Rockett and Harvey Lynch, who juggle other jobs while also working as island bus drivers. Patricia McGrady told the Current that she is the full-time special services driver. She said she and the other two drivers have also been helping with sports team pickups and getting kids to school as the island continues to work toward recruiting more drivers. She acknowledged the need for more bus drivers.

Smith said in an effort to help assist the school in recruiting more bus drivers, he wanted to become an instructor and planned on going through the training in September. But with the uptick in hours and responsibilities he has after one of the island’s bus drivers suddenly quit last Tuesday, he now doesn’t have the time.

“We are so thin,” he said. “I have to have a PET scan on October 13th and pray to God nothing is wrong with me, but hypothetically what if something happened to me? I would have to leave and there is nobody to step in. My health is more important of course but I feel bad because these kids, the students here, they are the best students I have ever drove to school in my life. I have drove on the mainland. I have drove in the inner city. They tell you to go f*** yourself, rip up seats, and they fight. It is like going to church with these kids on island.”

But for all the good Smith takes out of the job, he explained that there is much more to becoming a bus driver than many realize, which has led to the shortage being felt on the island and nationwide.

Smith said housing remains one of the biggest obstacles for bus drivers. He has had to move three times in three years and currently lives in a 10x7 room away from his friends and family on the mainland. He said drivers are paid well, but it is offset by the fact they don’t get paid for holidays or paid during summer break, and since they are working for a municipality, they can’t collect unemployment.

“I don’t know what to do and you want to know the truth?” Smith asked. “This driver shortage is probably going to get worse before it gets better. Say you are making $800 or $900 per week. Well after taxes and after insurance there isn’t much left. Then after you pay your rent, then what? I had someone tell me about a one bedroom for like $2,000 per month. People aren’t going to come over. You aren’t going to leave where you are.”
Smith said the prerequisites drivers need to go through before beginning their training are necessary but eliminate many candidates in his eyes. You need to have a clean driving record, complete a CORI check, have very few or no tickets, and comply with random drug tests (Smith has had three in three years).

“How many people want to give up weed to drive a bus?” Smith asked. “There are probably some young people who don’t smoke. I am not saying everyone smokes, but you can’t just get hired by having a pulse. I don’t know how many people know about what the process is to become a bus driver. All these rules are great. They are necessary. When you pick up that four-year old little kid named Mac and his parents are letting him get on the bus for the first time, you don’t think they are a little freaky with that? No sh**, so people need to be vetted and you have to have a good connection with the parents. You need to show them you care, smile, and be nice. You can’t be a crab. But how many people are willing to go through this process and sacrifice these things?”

Drivers are required to complete 60 hours of training, and 29 classroom hours can be completed on Nantucket. The other 31 hours are driving hours, which must be completed off-island.

Smith said the reason for this is because the driving test is completed at an off-island course and the island can’t provide a practice course with many of the things included in that final test such as stop lights, highways, bridges, hills, and railroad tracks.

“Three years ago, the Department of Public Utilities officers would be the ones to go on the bus and you would go through a course. They were definitely a little more lenient on mistakes. But the State Police took over and now there is no room for mistakes,” Smith said. “You have 20 minutes to do a circle check, open up the hood and tell them everything in that hood, then run down the side and point out what is under the bus. Then you have to get on your bus and do two air brake tests, and then there are other things.”

“I’ll tell you something, you are nervous. You have the statey there and then you have to go for an extensive ride. If you hit a curb, you’re done. Then when you try to back in the bus you get one or two pull ups and if you hit a cone, you’re done. If you fail, it isn’t like you get to try again the next day. You go to the back of the line, even if it isn’t very long. The test is much more nerve-racking now. It is difficult.”

Smith was very complimentary of the island’s school administrators, specifically acknowledging the efforts of Hallett and assistant athletic director Matt Hunt for the work they are doing. He said Cape Cod Collaborative, which has been attempting to help Nantucket and many other schools combat these shortages, have done all they can to assist.

Smith said he wants people to know that there is more to becoming a bus driver than many people are aware of. The schools are expecting to get another full-time driver in the middle of October if she passes the test, which would provide some much-needed relief.

“I just want people to understand that this job isn’t always easy,” he said. “We are strung thin here. The kids, the parents, and everybody for the most part have been really understanding.”

Smith said he also wants people to know about the contributions of the monitors, saying all of them work together as a team to deliver kids safely to school. They are Wendy Herrick Alman, Marianne Worth, David McMaster, Gary Printz, and Kilby Dwyer.

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