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Bus driver has 35 years with Manteca Unified
Manteca Unified master mechanic Tanna Eckles inspects a short bus inside the districts shop. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

Deborah Herrera has seen the world from a bus windshield for the last 35 years.

And there’s no other view in the world that she’d rather have.

The Manteca Unified School District transportation driver – who began her career in September of 1980 – is currently the most senior of all bus drivers in the district. She has been at her job long enough to see some of her former charges now taking charge of local elementary schools.

That’s exactly what happened when she ran into Nile Garden Principal Deborah Noceti-Ward on campus and was reminded by the administrator that she had been the one who picked her up from her childhood Raymus Village home and brought her to New Haven Elementary school.

Every school day Manteca Unified’s  fleet of 72 buses transports an average of 1,430 students from home to school.

Last school year, district buses traveled 1,325,424 miles. That’s the equivalent of going to the moon (238,857 miles) and back 2.7 times every year.

Eight years ago the number of students transported was significantly higher for the 23,500-student school district. That was before state budget cuts prompted the district to increase the minimum distance for providing bus transportation between a student’s residence and their school campus.

Walking distance from home to school is now 1.25 miles for kindergarten through eighth graders and 2.5 miles for high school.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to pick up the children of the children that I used to drive to school,” Herrera said. “I love that – you get a chance to see kids grow up and different generations of the same family. I look at these kids like my babies.”

That’s not to say that things haven’t changed in the three decades she’s been climbing up to sit behind the giant wheel of the 84 or 86 passenger bus that serves as her office.

When Herrera first started she was tasked with picking up the children from the then-new Raymus Village. Eventually she transitioned out to picking up kids from the migrant farm camps in French Camp and now takes a route that brings rural South Manteca students to Nile Garden Elementary.

Each of the three assignments, she said, presents its own unique circumstances. Hererra said that she became very close with the migrant students that she got to know in her years of bringing them to school, and now has that same affinity for the “dairy kids” that she picks up on the outskirts of the Manteca Unified boundary.

While routes have changed consistently over the time she’s been employed and new schools and subdivisions have sprouted around town, the isolated treks that she makes in the most rural areas are a throwback to a simpler time – when things weren’t quite as busy, and the district wasn’t quite as large.

“What’s different about going to Nile Garden and serving those students is that sometimes you’ll have to drive two miles before you pick up another student,” she said. “The houses and the dairies are so far apart out there that’s there is no central bus stop like you see in some places. You have to pick up the kids individually and drop them off individually.

“It’s a lot different than what other people experience.”

In order to become a bus driver in California a person must obtain a commercial drivers license with a passenger endorsement and pass a variety of tests administered by the California Highway Patrol. Every year upkeep training must be completed in order to maintain certification, and new rules and regulations must be incorporated into the daily job.

In recent years that has meant using a deployable stop sign and flashing lights when dropping off students as a way to curb traffic flow and ensure safety. Seat belts are now a requirement in all buses – something that limits the capacity somewhat as putting three students in every bench seat isn’t always possible.

But keeping up on new regulations is a byproduct of the love that Herrera has for the job.

And her love for the job? It’s still there and overflows every time she’s a smiling student bounding up the steps to her big yellow bus. The styles have changed since she began in 1980, and some of them have come back around full-circle to become stylish once again. But all of that nostalgia melts away when she hears the low hum of students conversing behind her.

It’s all about that moment.

“I just love being around the kids, and I love what I do,” Herrera said. “This isn’t to sound arrogant or anything, but I’m comfortable and confident about how good of a driver I am – I can back that bus in anywhere.

“When you do it for as long as I have you have to love it. Otherwise I would have found something else a long time ago.”