TAMPA – Vishnu Seepersad has eyes in the back of his head.
At least that’s what he tells the youngsters who ride his school bus every morning and afternoon.
“They don’t know I can see them in the mirror,” quips Seepersad, 55, who goes by “Joey.”
At 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, Seepersad greets 45 groggy students by name as they climb onto his bus. The middle-schoolers take their assigned seats in the back and the elementary kids sit in front.
The driver steers bus No. 2862 out of the parking lot, focusing on the road, with his eyes darting up to that mirror periodically to check on the students — one of the routines all new drivers are taught to adopt.
Seepersad, hired in the spring, is one of 997 Hillsborough bus operators who drive 90,000 students to and from school every day.
The school district is looking for more like him – 200 more to be exact.
One in five operator positions are vacant today, meaning some drivers take on extra routes and some buses are arriving late to school.
In recent years, Hillsborough has operated about 140 to 150 drivers short. But at latest count, the number has grown to 200 openings.
Transportation general manager John Franklin said his department is working hard to recruit and retain bus drivers.
A work schedule that runs only 10 months instead of 12, with early morning starts and split shifts, isn’t for everyone, he said.
“The public expects the most responsible bus operators on the road,” he said. “We seek responsible adults that want to drive a bus. Our recruitment challenges are the uniqueness of the job.”
Franklin hopes a pay boost for bus drivers finalized earlier this month will draw more applicants.
First-year drivers in Hillsborough earn $10.56 per hour. With the increase, it’s $11.08 per hour. Veteran drivers make as much as $17 or $18 per hour.
As another incentive, a driver who recruits someone to join the team can earn bonuses of $100 for every year the recruit stays in the job. And once drivers are hired, the district reimburses them for the cost of earning a commercial driver’s license.
To be considered for the job, applicants must have least a 10th grade education, a commercial driver’s license and five years of driving experience, among other requirements.
School bus drivers typically work seven hours per day, but they have the opportunity to work more by signing up for midday runs to bring students on field trips, sports events or tutoring sessions.
“If you like the job and qualify, we’re happy to have anybody,” Franklin said.
Seepersad wakes up at 4 a.m. each day for his first run. He picks up students at bus stops and bring them to a district transfer hub on 40th Avenue near 21st Street, just north of Interstate 4. Here, he picks up a new set of students and drives them north to Williams Middle Magnet and Cahoon Elementary Magnet schools.
Originally from the Caribbean islands, Seepersad applied to be a school bus driver last spring because he loves kids and needed a job. A handyman, he had held various jobs over the years, including air-conditioning repair man and home nurse for elderly patients.
Two months into the school year, he and the students who ride his bus are comfortable with each other and he is enjoying his job.
“It’s always something different,” he said.
Driving a school bus comes with challenging responsibilities, including maneuvering a vehicle that’s the length of three cars while at the same time keeping a close eye on as many as 45 children often prone to mischief.
And for an idea of what can go wrong, look at news headlines across Tampa Bay: Three teens beat a fellow student on a Pinellas County school bus in July and the video went viral, a Hillsborough second-grader died a day after suffering a medical emergency while riding the bus home, and a Pasco student fatally shot himself after he was bullied on a bus.
In Hillsborough, if an emergency arises, a driver radios district dispatch, which is tied closely to the Tampa Police Department, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, emergency medical services and the school district’s security department.
“It’s a trying job, but it’s rewarding,” Seepersad said. “Once the kids get to know you, they’ll behave.”
School bus drivers are trained on how to handle and report bullying they witness on the job, Franklin said. They work to establish seating charts and build rapport with the students so it is understood that they are the adult supervisors.
“Part of good student management is identifying what’s going on on your bus,” Franklin said. “Some students may be picked on. You identify aggressive students that need to have an assigned seat. We’ve done comprehensive training on recognizing behaviors, writing referrals, maybe separating the aggressive student from the victim, maybe having an administrator come over when they get off the bus.”
Seepersad gives students a verbal warning before he writes them up.
In the last two weeks, he caught a group of about a dozen students throwing balls of paper out of the window at a motorcyclist. He was up until 11 p.m. that day writing referrals for all of them.
After the 10-minute trip to Williams Middle, the students hop off the bus and Seepersad continues on to the elementary school. The younger kids wiggle in their seats and the noise level increases. Three boys trade Pokemon cards in the front seat. A pair of siblings argue a few rows back.
“Hello! Excuse me! Classroom voices, please,” Seepersad calls from the front of the bus, and the students turn the volume down a notch.
When the bus rolls up to Cahoon, it’s not quite yet 7:30 a.m., which is when the students get off the bus to head to class. While they are waiting, Seepersad makes sure everyone is there, pulls out a first-aid kit to get a Band-Aid for a boy with a scraped knee and chats with a few students.
“Take your hat off!” a student calls out.
To humor them, Seepersad removes his black baseball cap, revealing his mostly bald head, which elicits a round of giggles from the students.
“They get a good laugh when I take my hat off,” he said. “In my younger days, I had a full head of hair.”
Franklin said moments like these are why Seepersad is so good at his job.
“He just has an inviting, warm personality,” Franklin said. “You’ve really got to be patient, understanding, assertive, firm to be able to work with the students.”
While it’s a high-turnover job, some Hillsborough drivers have been at it for decades.
Another bus driver, Evelyn Sims, has been driving a Hillsborough school bus since 1987. Today, she drives the children of some of her former students.
“When I got in, I didn’t think I was going to stay,” she said. “But I have really grown to love the kids. It’s embedded in me.”
Sims describes herself as an “old-school” bus driver.
“I tell them we’re family on this bus,” she said. “I tell them I am the bus mama. We are going to be nice to one another. No profanity.”