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School bus maven starts a new route

Joan Gear, a skilled expert on transportation issues for the school district, begins a new journey - retirement.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 17, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
Joan Gear, operations manager for the district's transportation department, is retiring.
BROOKSVILLE -- Joan Gear knows all the back roads in Hernando County. She can tell you about any railroad crossing you care to ask about.

But the thing people will likely talk about years from now is her uncanny ability to take an address -- a house number on any given road -- and tell you the color of its roof, where it sits in relation to nearby landmarks and the name of the kid who lives there.

Around the school district's Transportation Department, the hub on California Street where more than 200 buses roll out to move 13,000 kids a day, that kind of instant recall is a valuable commodity.

In fact, Danny Pampinella, who plans bus routes for the school district, has dubbed Mrs. Gear the "mother of all transportation" for her geographic recall.

"I was always amazed by that," Pampinella said.

Transportation director Mark Tallent said anyone who wanted to know where a child lived simply needed to call on Mrs. Gear. "You can never replace her knowledge," he said.

Such encyclopedic knowledge helps, particularly in cases where families new to the area request school bus service but cannot describe where it is they live. Mrs. Gear says it happens a couple of times per week.

After 181/2 years of Mrs. Gear's mapping bus routes, confronting parents about unruly kids and counseling drivers about their performance, the school district's Transportation Department will have to get along without her.

On Friday, she retired.

A 58-year-old workaholic, Mrs. Gear has grown accustomed to days that begin at 5 a.m. with the school bus dispatch radio at her ear and end at 7 p.m. with phone calls to parents who are difficult to reach at any other time.

She announced her pending retirement more than a year ago. And it was more difficult than she imagined. "It affected me almost like a death in the family," she said.

Leaving is hard, she says, because she considers her co-workers to be family and the students who ride the buses to be her children.

Mrs. Gear started working in the Transportation Department as a secretary on Aug. 18, 1983 -- a date she has committed to memory because she considers it the best day of her life.

Gradually, she assumed more duties. She started plotting school bus routes. More and more, she assumed supervisory roles.

In recent years, as operations manager and the No. 2 person in the department, she has overseen the bus routing while handling budgets and policy issues.

Over her career, Hernando County's bus fleet has grown from 77 buses to more than 200. She watched as video cameras began to appear on school buses in 1992 and as air conditioning began to cool things off starting two years ago.

A lot of Mrs. Gear's career focused on school bus safety.

Her job took her to schools to talk with principals, on the road to follow drivers for safety checks and even onto buses to see how kids behave and their drivers react to them.

With students, safety means keeping them in their seats and behaving in an orderly manner. When that's not happening, Mrs. Gear said, drivers can get distracted, and accidents can occur.

To that end, Mrs. Gear was frequently the Transportation Department's point person with parents. She said a friendly call often straightens out the problem. But sometimes unbelieving parents must be convinced about their child's misdeeds with videotape.

Given clear direction, she says, students typically respond well. "I don't think they are any different than children were 20 years ago," she said.

Mrs. Gear is so fond of the kids that she sometimes handed them her office phone number and told them to call if they had a problem on the bus.

With bus drivers, there were occasions where minor corrections were needed.

Typically, those involved reminding drivers to wear their seat belts or warning them about driving missteps -- such as rolling through a stop sign -- that might get reported from time to time.

She said some of the greatest dangers to school buses and their passengers come from members of the driving public. Too often, people disregard the flashing lights and stop sign arms that indicate students are getting on or off a bus.

Mrs. Gear said that sometimes, amazingly, drivers who come up behind an unloading school bus will zoom around the bus on the right shoulder -- the same side where kids are stepping off. "They could kill a child," she said.

Fortunately, no school bus drivers or passengers have died in Hernando County during Mrs. Gear's career. She says it is a testimony to the safety of buses and the skills of drivers.

For the record, Mrs. Gear opposes any move to apply seat belt laws to school bus passengers. Bus seats are padded and compartmentalized, limiting the injuries that students are subject to. She says waist belts would subject kids to G-forces that can cause injuries. They could also limit a young child's ability to escape a bus in the event of a fire, she said.

Mrs. Gear's retirement comes at the end of a difficult year in the Transportation Department. A female driver who made a sexual harassment complaint against a chief mechanic alleged that Gear and Tallent retaliated against her and another driver.

An investigation by School Board attorney Karen Gaffney found no evidence of retaliation. Gaffney did report that the matter had created dissension in the department and that there was concern among "many" employees that the department was run by intimidation.

Mrs. Gear said the department has moved beyond the troubles of last year. She said her departure has nothing to do with some of the issues that have come up.

Edd Poore, the district's executive director of support services, said Mrs. Gear has been an "excellent employee" who put in for retirement more than a year ago. "She'll be hard to replace. She does a lot of technical work over there. We'll miss her and have a hard time replacing her."

Superintendent Wendy Tellone said quite a few principals have told her they will miss Mrs. Gear's dependability and willingness to help. "She's really going to be missed," Tellone said.

Like any family, Mrs. Gear said, disagreements will crop up from time to time. The key is to deal with them. "Once in a while you are going to have a little discord," she said. "But you have to work that all out."

After years where she worked six and sometimes seven days a week, Gear said she plans to spend her first month of retirement reading a novel that has nothing to do with transportation issues.

After that, she plans to spend a week cleaning her house and corners in it "that I have never seen yet." From there, she wants to tend her garden and make frequent visits to see her children and her only granddaughter.

But Mrs. Gear expects to remain involved in schools and -- undoubtedly -- the Transportation Department. She expects to volunteer in the classroom and maybe at the Transportation Department by answering phone calls during the busy days leading up to the start of school.

Her successor as operations manager has yet to be named. But Mrs. Gear has one hope for the person who tries to fill her shoes.

"Just love my children," she said. "That's all I ask."

-- Robert King covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com.

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