The heat of the late August sun beat down last week as a crew scraped, scrubbed and squeegeed the last of the West Seneca School District’s bus fleet to prepare for the new academic year.
It’s a rite of summer performed annually in school districts that own buses. But in West Seneca, there’s a twist: It’s students who take up buckets, rags, putty knives, brooms and scrub brushes to tackle petrified chewing gum and sticky spills.
Besides a paycheck, the bus washers gain pride and a sense of ownership for the vehicles on which thousands of students spend time daily.
“It’s pretty much the best summer job you can ask for. You get to be outside all day,” said Sydney Glynn, a former West Seneca East High School student who now attends a prep school in Ontario.
“It beats fast food,” said Josh Miller, a senior at West Seneca West High School. “This job’s a blast.”
Between July 1 and the end of August, the teens have an opportunity to earn money while working flexible schedules that allow participation in extracurricular activities and sports, as well as family vacations.
“They are students first,” said Kevin Love, the district’s transportation director.
The student bus washers program began in 1989 as a collaboration between the town and school district to help fulfill unpaid community service requirements for the town’s Youth Court program. These days, applications and interviews are part of the process to get the job, which pays the $8 hourly minimum wage.
“A majority of the time, it’s the first job that they’ve had,” Love said.
The 20 bus washers this summer included current and former students, as well as the children of some district employees. They worked under the supervision of bus drivers Tom Deubell and Lynette Zmijewski, who also had to apply for their jobs.
“They try to teach them a good work ethic,” Love said of the supervisors.
Student bus washers have been around for as long as Love has worked for West Seneca. This year, $35,000 was budgeted for it out of the district’s transportation budget of almost $5.8 million.
Other school districts take different approaches.
Springville-Griffith Institute, for example, hired just one person, at a cost of about $8,000, to tackle the district’s 45 vehicles, according to Ted Welch, the district’s business administrator and transportation supervisor. Cleaning begins right after school recesses for the summer and wraps up at the end of August.
The fleets of the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda and Grand Island school districts, which share a transportation supervisor, number 125 and 70, respectively.
In both districts, the exteriors of buses are power-washed, said Jack Burns, transportation supervisor for the districts. But Ken-Ton drivers are given time at the end of the school year to clean their buses, while Grand Island hires four people for a weeklong cleaning blitz.
Grand Island’s expenses totaled about $5,000, according to the business office.
Ken-Ton paid $3,000 for the power washing, but figures weren’t available for bus driver labor.
West Seneca’s 75 vehicles range from seven-passenger vans to 65-passenger school buses. The district also has a busing contract with a national company, which is responsible for its own vehicles.
Once the bench seats have been removed, there are a dozen cleaning tasks to be performed in just the passenger compartments. Then 11 jobs must be completed in the driver’s area, plus window-washing inside and out, and an exterior wash and wax.
“It’s almost like a full detail. The only thing we don’t do is vacuum,” Deubell said.
Bus floors, which have a wooden deck beneath vinyl coverings, are swept, scrubbed and rinsed with a hose, then a squeegee is used to force excess water out the back door. The work is done while buses are parked on a slight ramp to promote drainage; afterward, they’re taken on a spin to dislodge residual water.
It takes a day to clean a smaller vehicle. “The big buses can take as much as two days to do,” said Deubell.
During the school year, bus drivers are responsible for their individual vehicles. “We have got to sweep our buses, wash our windows. When the weather permits, I wash my bus on the outside,” Zmijewski said.
When it comes to the messes, the student bus washers take them in stride.
“You find lots of chewed-up gum everywhere – in every single seat,” Glynn said. “You find a lot of gross food people, like, shove in between the seats.”
“Sometimes I get grossed out, but not that bad,” said Ryan Marino, a senior at West High School. Cleaners also find pocket change, which they’re allowed to keep. And they also gain a new respect for the fruits of their labors.
“We have a huge respect now to how we treat the buses,” said Dan Barone, a senior at East High School. “We have more appreciation for actually riding the buses when we clean them.”