On Feb. 3, school bus drivers and parents in New Kent County spoke to the School Board about the possibility losing their jobs to outsourcing and/or a loss of health benefits.

•Talking to shy and quiet students who seem alone to remind them that someone cares.

•Taking kindergarteners on a tour of the buses, so they won't be scared on the first day of school.

•Calling new students to tell them who they are going to sit next to on the bus.

•Calling the parents if a pet has been hit or found in the middle of the road, so they can remove it before the child gets home.

•Calling neighbors when their animals are loose.

"We are usually the first and last school representatives the students see," Ferrell said.

Frances Cogbill, a parent of a New Kent student, also spoke in favor of keeping the school bus drivers, who have become her "vocal advocates" for her autistic son.

"My son is non-verbal and he has no words to speak for himself," Cogbill said. "I depend not only on the teachers, but also his bus drivers and their aides, to be his eyes and ears."

Cogbill added that routine is essential to treating his condition, and that riding the bus has become one of his favorite times.

"He laughs and dances in his seat. He always meets the bus with an energetic and enthusiastic smile," she said. "Please do not put that in the hands of a stranger."

Though the bus drivers found out about the possible benefit cuts in late December, Richardson explained that the board is relaying information as it becomes available.

"We are doing the best we can to share information as we learn it," said Richardson. "I don't want you to labor under the misimpression that there's information that we've had and that we've just held."

Richardson also impressed upon the drivers that they are well respected in the school system.

"All of what you said here tonight is not a surprise to any one of us here at this table," Richardson said. "We enjoy the finest transportation program in the Commonwealth of Virginia, second to none, as far as I'm concerned."

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.