Transportation Director Annie Bell will retire this month after 19 years with the Peninsula School District and over 30 years working in school transportation.
Bell started out as a bus driver in Grapeview in 1987, later becoming an assistant supervisor in North Mason. During a four-year training program at Central Washington University, Bell decided she wanted to become a Transportation Director west of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. At PSD, she focused on doing her job well while living out that goal.
Since 2004, Bell has been in charge of managing student transportation across the entire district, which spans 120 square miles, encompassing two peninsulas, three islands, multiple bridges and countless rural, winding back roads. Bell’s department employs 114 bus drivers and maintains a fleet of 102 school buses.
“We go over 1.5 million miles a year. When I first started, I never thought we’d get to a million,” Bell said. “It’s always a challenge that we’re surrounded by water. Most of our bus runs have three tiers — high school, middle school and elementary — but sometimes the distance makes it so a bus can’t do all three. Those are things on the back side that, when we’re routing, we have to consider. That’s a challenge I’ve enjoyed.”
About a third of PSD’s 10,000 students ride the bus to and from 16 different schools, including targeted programs not available at all schools, meaning a child who lives near Evergreen Elementary might ride the bus to Minter or Discovery outside the regular boundaries. Under the current school schedule combining in-person and virtual learning, 74 drivers cover the district’s 120 square miles.
Bell’s work has always been a shifting puzzle, but this pandemic year has had the most challenges. When the number of students attending school in-person is limited or changes, the number of kids riding the bus changes too. PSD Transportation has had to adapt to school schedule and policy changes and the opening of new schools, as well as servicing meal delivery routes.
“We had to reinvent everything and my routers had to reroute everything; we’ve done this three times and this is usually something we have all summer to plan,” Bell said. “And with COVID, we have to make sure we have enough cleaning time in between to properly clean the buses.”
Bell’s “transportation family” — mechanics, bus drivers, dispatchers, a driver trainer, a secretary and bookkeeper, and her supervisor — work hard to keep the system running smoothly.
“It takes all of us. All the pieces have to fit together and we have to complete the circle. You have to have all those great people on the bus to make the operation work,” Bell said. “With COVID, it’s been quite challenging for the drivers — wearing their masks every day, trying to keep the ventilation going, out there in the pouring rain. Add kids behind you, all the traffic, that rain, your mask, trying to stay composed. It’s difficult.”
Former PSD Deputy Superintendent Marcia Harris, who hired Bell as a dispatcher in 2002, promoted her to Transportation Director in 2004, and worked with Bell on establishing the KP Connects program, which provides community transportation using off-duty school buses, said Bell is always upbeat, making things work no matter how difficult the challenge.
“I’ve worked with a lot of transportation directors and I’ve met no one like her. Whatever the job was, she did it. If we were short a driver and needed someone for a route, she’d go out and jump in the bus,” Harris said. “Annie’s been successful in unbelievable ways. She’s absolutely amazing and respected by the whole department.”
As Bell’s work comes to an end, she takes the most pride in the transformation of the district’s bus fleet over the course of her career. When she started, PSD had the oldest fleet in the state of Washington. The Detroit-engine buses, which Bell referred to as “old smokers” were replaced in 2005 when Bell secured a grant matched by the district. Now, most PSD buses are on the Washington State depreciation schedule, meaning they qualify for the Transportation Vehicle Fund, part of Washington State’s school bus reimbursement system.
“That’s taken years to have happen,” Bell said. “I feel a great accomplishment that we’ve improved our bus fleet and got new equipment on our buses.”
Bell looks forward to spending more time enjoying her home in Grapeview in her retirement, kayaking, boating and clam digging, as well as visiting grandchildren in Oregon and extended family in her childhood home of Arklow, County Wicklow, Ireland, where she was born.
“I’ll miss all of the great people that work for me, and the importance of what we do every day, getting these kids to and from school safely. I’ve enjoyed so much working for this district. And that’s from the bottom of my heart,” Bell said. “It’s been a good ride.”
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