January 30, 2009
Long bus rides part of rural life
Students in DeRuyter travel as much as 40 minutes as bus winds through hills
Bob Ellis/staff photographer
A DeRuyter Central School District bus comes face to face with a snow plow while climbing Richmond Hill Road in Cuyler Wednesday afternoon. The bus travels 21 miles on its route.
DeRUYTER — Nathan Peacock gets the first seat near the door of bus number 79 and Hunter Way gets the seat across the aisle, right behind driver Maryann Metcalf.
That is just the custom when Metcalf’s bus picks up DeRuyter Central School students on her route every school morning and takes them home in the afternoon.
The two fifth-graders like those seats. Way’s brother Zack, who is in sixth grade, sits nearby.
Seventeen students rode Metcalf’s bus home Wednesday from the district’s single building in the village of DeRuyter, onto Route 13 and into the hills and valleys of Cuyler. She usually has about 25 students.
The route covered 21 miles and the students’ rides ranged from five to 37 minutes. The winter weather can make the rides even longer.
Long bus rides are part of life in any rural school district. Driving the back roads and valleys, bus drivers carry a large responsibility, says DeRuyter Superintendent of Schools Charles Walters.
“A child leaves home and becomes the driver’s responsibility,” Walters said. “They are as important as any teacher or counselor, even me.”
When New York state government talks about merging districts with enrollments under 1,000, as Gov. David Paterson did last fall, rural districts say students already spend enough time on bus rides and transportation is already costly enough.
The DeRuyter district stretches into Madison, Cortland, Onondaga and Chenango counties. The school itself sits in Madison County, just over the line.
DeRuyter has 11 bus routes that average 20 to 22 miles and last 40 to 45 minutes for students on board the longest, said Don Smith, transportation director.
The DeRuyter school building has 425 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade. Most students over age 16 drive to school or ride with someone.
Smith said buses get about 7 or 8 miles to a gallon.
Climbing aboard at 3:06 p.m., just after school ended for the day, Peacock and the Way brothers settled in behind Metcalf. All three wore camouflage-style shirts.
There are five Way children. The oldest, Chelsea, graduated last year. The other four were on the bus: Zack, Hunter, sophomore Bridget, first-grader Taylor.
“Hey, there’s my bag,” said Peacock, pointing to an orange plastic bag carrying clothes, lying on the first seat. “I left it on here this morning.”
“Guys, sit down,” Metcalf said sternly. “Get in your seats and sit down.”
Metcalf pulled the 10-ton vehicle onto Railroad Street at 3:13 p.m.
Metcalf, who has been driving a school bus for 21 years, five for DeRuyter, guided the big yellow vehicle along roads that climbed hills, curved through snow-covered forests and passed farms and isolated houses looking out over valleys.
Letting the bus radio play a country music station from Syracuse, Metcalf watched the students in a mirror above her seat.
Whenever she stopped to let them out, two mirrors on the hood showed her the road around the bus.
Metcalf, 56, lives in Pitcher, about 20 minutes from DeRuyter. Her husband, Steven, has driven a bus for Cincinnatus Central School for 36 years.
“He just got hooked on it,” she said. “He said I might like it. I do.”
Asked if she had honed her voice as she raised three boys, Metcalf just smiled.
Most drivers do the job part time, for about three hours a day. Smith said one of his drivers works all day, taking students to BOCES in addition to his route.
The starting pay for DeRuyter drivers this year is $14.75 per hour, Smith said.
Wednesday afternoon was gray and the hilltops were covered with fog. A snowstorm had left the roads a bit slippery and bumpy from ridges of snow and ice, so everyone aboard the bus bounced.
It did not seem to bother anyone.
“I usually listen to country music,” said Bridget Way, sitting in the back with the other high school students. Today, her choice was Carrie Underwood.
Behind her, fellow sophomore Ryan Coveny, 15, said he did not do much as he rode every day, just waited for the bus to reach his house on Midlum Spur Road.
“It’s about 20 minutes,” he said. “I’ll get a car and drive to school as soon as I can.”
He said Metcalf is “a nice lady.”
Across the aisle, sophomore John Conklyn read a book containing five Douglas Adams science fiction novels. He said he usually reads and does not mind the long ride.
Four girls exited the bus at a white house, greeted by four dogs.
Metcalf turned up Pease Hill Road and came to Peacock’s home. He bounded off the bus after Metcalf asked if he had all of his possessions.
Conklyn’s stop was next, then the Ways’ brown wooden home that overlooks a valley. Metcalf turned the bus around and headed into the final stretch down Cuyler Hill Road.
Two students, both girls, remained on board when Metcalf made her last stop, 37 minutes into her route.
“’Bye,” one girl said softly as they left the bus.
“Good night,” Metcalf answered.
Heading back to the school, she pointed out trees along a marsh where beavers had chewed the trunks. She said she has to watch for trees fallen across the road.
She pulled the bus into the school lot and parked in the row of buses at 4:08 p.m. She recorded her mileage, checked the rows of seats for students’ belongings and looked over the bus’ signs and lights again.
Her day was done.
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