Sag Harbor School District bus driver Lamont Miller, Superintendent Dr. Carl Bonuso with children riding the bus to Sag Harbor Elementary School Monday morning, the first day of the 2013-14 school year.
By Tessa Raebeck
“This is an amazing place,” said Dr. Carl Bonuso Monday as he greeted students entering Pierson Middle/High School, embarking on the first day of the 2013-14 school year.
“I come from a system that was mom and pop and they cared about all the kids, but it still wasn’t as personal as it is here,” he said.
After greeting the older kids at Pierson, the superintendent found Bus A and joined its driver, Lamont Miller, on his second ride of the day through Noyac and North Haven Village. This time, the bus picked up Sag Harbor’s elementary students, some riding the bus for their first day of school in the district as kindergarteners.
Miller, whose enthusiasm for the first day of school even rivaled Dr. Bonuso’s, has been driving this route since 2009. He has two daughters going into kindergarten and pre-kindergarten in Riverhead this year, so he said he understands the mixture of excitement and anxiety that accompanies the first day of school.
At Bus A’s first stop, Miller was greeted by name by a veteran fifth grader, Savannah, and her mom.
“We were hoping it was you,” Savannah’s mom told Miller.
He smiled back, “Savannah, you’re a fifth grader now, huh? You get to ride in the backseat.”
The seating on Bus A is divided by grades, with the youngest students in the front and the oldest in the back. Moving back a few rows on the first day of school is a tradition and the children know which rows belong to each grade.
Equipped with cameras, dogs and grandparents, the group of parents at the next stop waved hello to Miller and Dr. Bonuso.
“They’re happy it’s Lamont!” said a mom, as the neighborhood kids greeted their familiar bus driver, who reminded everybody to buckle up.
“I think this is one of the jobs that people could very easily underestimate, in terms of how important it is and how difficult it is,” said Dr. Bonuso. “The parents feel so comfortable because you know them so personally,” he told Lamont.
Since Sag Harbor owns and operates its own transportation system, the district is responsible for the training and oversight of all its drivers. Maude Stevens, the lead bus driver who supervises all district transportation, has established intricate routes through Sag Harbor.
“Maude does a remarkable job overseeing this and orienting our bus drivers to the community and the children they’ll be working with,” said Dr. Bonuso. “Maude literally knows each bus driver, has trained them, worked with them, met with them who knows how many times. She knows each bus driver, she knows each bus, she knows each stop…it’s hard to put that value into dollars.”
According to Dr. Bonuso, Stevens and her drivers know which roads are being serviced, which neighborhoods have late landscaping and which streets are prone to flooding.
“They even have a sense of what each month is like on each road,” said the superintendent.
The transportation office tweaks the routes in an ongoing review and especially during the first week of school, trying to ensure that no student is riding the bus for longer than 40 minutes.
As we travelled through Noyac, the school bus got louder and louder. At one stop, three brothers got on. The youngest, a kindergartener in a brand new blue backpack with brightly colored dragonflies, appeared absolutely terrified. His oldest brother — despite being allowed to sit in the back of the bus — buckled him into the front seat, across from Dr. Bonuso and sat next to him for the whole ride, letting him know what to expect on his first day.
“When you’re young, people always say, ‘Ah, you’re so young, life’s not a problem,’” said Dr. Bonuso. “But actually, when you’re young everything’s so strange, you’re doing everything for the first time.”
In Bay Point, several families were waiting for Bus A. “What’s up Brian? Hey Hannah!” Lamont greeted each child by name. “How you doing Riley? She’s a kindergartener?” he asked Riley’s grandma, Gail Ratcliffe. “She’s in good hands.”
As he buckled her in, Dr. Bonuso told Riley, “You’re going to love kindergarten.”
When the bus arrived at Sag Harbor Elementary School, some of the parents from the route were waiting for the bus with their cameras ready. “The people in this community,” said Dr. Bonuso, kissing his fingers and holding them out, “unbelievable. So kind and gracious to each other.”
“Are you going to be here tomorrow?” Riley asked the superintendent.
“No, I’m going to be in school but I’m riding the bus today to make sure everything’s okay,” replied Dr. Bonuso.
With her first bus ride behind her, Riley hugged Dr. Bonuso goodbye, thanked Lamont and headed off to embark on her next adventure, the first day of school.