Carson City School District transportation supervisor Cheri Fletcher, left, bus driver Jill Sarge and bus aide Jerri Powers are three of the transportation department’s most tenured employees. Sarge has worked for the district the longest for nearly 42 years and celebrated her retirement this week with her coworkers. (Photo: Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal)
Just before the Fairview Drive section of Interstate 580 opened in 2009, Carson City School District special needs bus driver Jill Sarge made one of her young riders a promise.
“There was a boy who was a run for his money,” Sarge recounted. “When the new freeway was built, I told him, ‘If you’re good all week, the day that freeway opens, I’m taking you on the freeway. ‘You are?’ So we came back and we got on the freeway. I think it was only to Fairview, and he was 5, and we got off the hill.
“I had whispered to his mom that I was going to be taking him,” she went on. “To this day, he still talks about that. He’s 21, 22 now. That’s how long the freeway’s been there.”
Sarge, Carson City School District’s longest tenured employee, has transported special needs students and young parents in its New Horizons program for many of her 41 years.
She drove bus 17 for 17 years and has worked with bus attendant Jerri Powers for about 20 years, sharing laughs, hearing stories and always delivering students from home to school and back home again. She’s enjoyed the daily routine of the job and developed the patience
It’s all happened in, on or around her bus. She’s taken children on field trips. Students have asked who went to the bathroom on her bus when, in reality, the bus broke down over a sewer opening about 30 years ago. She’s called on the department’s mechanics to assist in poor weather and needed chains put on the tires to keep going. Fan belts stopped functioning. Family emergencies have interrupted the routine.
Sarge has worked in constantly changing conditions but always remaining one of the most pleasant drivers on the team, according to Transportation Department Supervisor Cheri Fletcher, who has been with the district for about 24 years. According to district records, Sarge also was named Transportation Department Employee of the Year for 1998-99 and received other accolades for working with special needs students.
“She’s the most patient driver,” Fletcher said. “She’s very sweet, kind and she never got a complaint, maybe a false complaint. I’m going to miss her. … It’s been a miracle. I love Jill. She’s an awesome person, both of them are (Sarge and Powers).”
Her ability to handle stressful situations might have been due to her training, but Sarge was “never in a hurry” to react as most others usually do on the road.
“I think they think we’re related to the classroom a lot of the times,” she said of parents and drivers.
That also was true for managing students on a bus. Sarge and Powers say behaviors on buses of the 1980s or 1990s seemed more like “pranks” than today’s conduct.
“It was the shaving cream, it was the throwing of a shoe, it was things like that,” she said. “It wasn’t the ripping of a seat like these days. Oh, yeah, I’ve been through it all. I’ve had gum in my hair, shoes flying. Even when I first started, a lot of the children had Down syndrome, they were on regular school buses, they weren’t on the special needs bus.”
When Sarge first began, she was worried about being able to drive a school bus. She simply hoped to get hired. During her driver’s test, she had knocked down all the cones trying to steer a larger vehicle than she had ever operated before.
“I was desperate to get a job,” she said about her initial interview. “The lady, she liked me, and she said, ‘See you tomorrow, we’ll get you a job.’ She took me out, we drove around, went up the hill, came back to the (Department of Motor Vehicles) and I got my license. … I’d never driven a stick shift in my life. I said, ‘What if I don’t pass?’ She goes, ‘Oh, you’ll pass.’ Well, I passed.”
She also shares laughter and memories with Powers about incidents that occurred years ago, and Powers reciprocates.
“A couple of years ago, Santa got on the bus (near the Governor’s Mansion) and gave (the kids) a candy cane … although you couldn’t do that today,” Sarge said.
“We’d get to talking sometimes and she’ll pass the street sometimes, and she’d blame it all on me,” Powers said of Sarge. “ ‘You forgot to tell me to turn!’ ”
Even if it has been mostly predictable throughout the years, the job has undergone its own changes. The district now offers 30 routes, Fletcher said, but four are left open with some staff members on medical leave and a few aide positions recently filled. The department currently employs about 24 on staff, Fletcher said. A few vacancies remain available.
Sarge said those who do work in the department shouldn’t rely on their position for their sole income. The hours are such that drivers and attendants are making four runs a day, working two hours in the morning, going home, returning for two hours in the afternoon and returning home again, depending on the routes and needs.
But Sarge wouldn’t trade in the good and bad days. In fact, she said she doesn’t even take change well. She’s enjoyed the job too much, and the department has needed dependable drivers as much as she’s needed the job herself.
But certain rules inevitably have changed, adapting to the times, current events and, of course, insurance policies, Sarge, Powers and Fletcher agree. Sarge once could bring her own child on board if she needed to, comfortably seating an old car seat that hung on the back of the seats and students often argued about who would sit with him, she recalled.
Stricter rules are in place now, Powers said.
“We used to be able to just give (the students) candy if they were good,” Powers said. “Now it makes it harder to bribe them.”
Fortunately, through the Carson City Schools Foundation, the department’s administration office specialist Teri Cantley applied for a mini-grant of $2,000 that went toward the purchase of manipulatives, or toys or small items, to keep special needs students occupied during their drives. It was enough to serve more than 150 students this school year.
With Sarge’s departure, Powers says she plans to continue as an attendant, but she won’t be reassigned to another driver; they’ll be reassigned to her. She said she looks forward to helping Carson City’s students and staying in touch with Sarge.
“I’m going to call her at 6 in the morning and say, ‘Time to get up!’” she joked.
Sarge was surprised with a retirement party this week with about 35 of her colleagues, including drivers and mechanics.
“There’s come a time I want to be able to do some things for myself while I still can,” she said. “It’s been great.”