Emma Olden talks with bus driver Bob Bryant during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

AUBURN — The first student to get on bus No. 16 Wednesday was Emma Olden, a kindergartner at Park Avenue Elementary School. She had a new Pixar-themed backpack and didn’t shy away from conversation with veteran bus driver Bob Bryant.

Olden, 5, said she was excited and “a little nervous” for the first day. She said she’s looking forward to meeting new friends and seeing old ones.

During a Sun Journal ride-along on the bus Wednesday, that was the typical response from students, who were mostly heading to East Auburn Community School. You could sense the nervous energy as students piled in, and the noise rose as friends talked about the summer and new, back-to-school items, including clothes, water bottles and backpacks. 

Asked who his favorite “Avengers” superhero is, a shy kindergartner pointed to Iron Man. Farther down the aisle, pupils wore shoes that lit up and colorful T-shirts. 

In Auburn and Lewiston, Wednesday was the first day of school for children in kindergarten through ninth grade, and Bryant was running the same New Auburn-Perkins Ridge bus route he’s done for almost 20 years. He knows everyone along the route, and pointed out students he once drove to school who are now parents, ushering their children to the bus stop. 

Auburn’s bus system is back under School Department control, after what Bryant and others described as a turbulent year when the operation was outsourced to a private company. Superintendent Katy Grondin announced in June that the department was ending its relationship with Ledgemere Transportation. 

To the children riding on the bus, there was no noticeable difference. But, Bryant said, the return to form has boosted morale among transportation staff. He said longtime bus drivers left the district last year but have now returned. 

“It was a blessing that Auburn took it over again,” he said. “It was great to hear them say that.” 

In 2013 when the Auburn School Committee unanimously voted to outsource transportation to save money, bus drivers objected. At that time, the School Department provided health care to drivers who worked 20 hours a week.

Northeast Charter controlled the bus system for the prior three years. Bryant said that after Ledgemere came in, many drivers lost benefits and the loss of drivers, combined with new management, led to missed pickups, wrong routes and other issues. 

“It just didn’t work out,” he said.  

Bryant, who grew up in Auburn and lives in Mechanic Falls, recently turned 79, but he doesn’t look it. He knows every child and parent along the department’s longest bus route. At stops, he called out to parents, who looked happy to see him. He said he drives about 125 miles a day, picking up between 150 and 200 students. He estimated that if he tallied each day of his career, he’s driven about 600,000 students. 

He also drives many of Auburn’s sports teams. Recently, the Edward Little hockey team took up a collection and bought Bryant a custom embroidered hockey jacket. 

During the 2016 school year, Bryant said he and other longtime drivers half-joked with Grondin about retiring.

“She said, ‘Oh, no you’re not,'” Bryant said. 

Meanwhile, Olden was busy making new friends in the front row, directly behind Bryant. When told by Bryant that she was outgoing for a 5-year-old, Olden said, “I’m, like, my mom’s little daredevil.” 

Nearby, second-grader Sophia Hitchcock said she’s always taken bus No. 16, and was excited to see friends on the bus and others at school. When asked what she did during summer vacation, she said she went to Palace Playland in Old Orchard Beach. She also showed off a new backpack. A few minutes later, her best friend Lauren Fuller, a first-grader, got on the bus and grabbed a seat next to her. 

A group of students sitting together, including a pair of brothers, were asked what they expected during the first day. Most shrugged. One said, “I don’t know!” 

Bryant said he believes he has the “best route in the district.” It goes through a large apple orchard, and winds through some of the city’s most rural areas. He said sometimes he sees turkeys and deer in the fields along the road. 

When the bus finally arrived at East Auburn school, students filed out quickly. Grondin and a few other school officials were waiting, snapping photos. Olden’s new friend struggled to traverse the bus stairs while carrying a huge camouflage backpack. 

Grondin made sure to say hello to Bryant, and they spoke briefly about how long he’s been with the department. He told her she has a tough job. 

“People like you make the job easier, that’s for sure,” Grondin told him. 

As the last of the students left the bus, one stopped to give Bryant a hug. 

[email protected] 

Emma Olden talks with bus driver Bob Bryant during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Emma Olden talks with bus driver Bob Bryant during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Emma Olden talks with bus driver Bob Bryant during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Emma Olden talks with bus driver Bob Bryant during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Emma Olden talks with bus driver Bob Bryant during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Emma Olden talks with bus driver Bob Bryant during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Best friends Sophia Hitchcock, left, going into 2nd grade, and Lauren Fuller, 1st grade look out the window as they approach East Auburn Community School where they were going for their first day of school.

Best friends Sophia Hitchcock, left, going into 2nd grade, and Lauren Fuller, 1st grade look out the window as they approach East Auburn Community School where they were going for their first day of school.

Emma Olden watches as bus driver Bob Bryant talks with administrators at East Auburn Community School after dropping of several dozen children he and Emma picked up during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Emma Olden watches as bus driver Bob Bryant talks with administrators at East Auburn Community School after dropping of several dozen children he and Emma picked up during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Emma Olden talks with bus driver Bob Bryant during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Emma Olden talks with bus driver Bob Bryant during their long ride to school Wednesday morning in Auburn.

Best friends Sophia Hitchcock, left, a second-grader, and Lauren Fuller, in first grade, look out the window as they approach East Auburn Community School where they were going for their first day of classes Wednesday.

Superintendent says ‘smooth’ first day in Lewiston 

LEWISTON — On the first day of school for kindergarten through ninth grade, Superintendent of Schools Bill Webster said he toured each school and was confident about the work being done to “help make the year run smoothly.”

He said during the first day that he was also “struck” by the maintenance of Lewiston’s school buildings, “the care and commitment of staff and the students” and “the positive atmosphere in all the buildings.” 

The school department has a large number of new administrative staff, including four new principals and a new assistant superintendent. There are also new rules regarding cell phone use at Lewiston Middle School, and a massive construction project on a new, state-funded elementary school. 

Webster said the construction is moving ahead on schedule, and shouldn’t interfere too much in the normal day-to-day school operation.

He said the impact from the work is largely confined to longer walking routes for students walking from downtown, and high school athletic practices and outdoor physical education activities being displaced to Bates College and other venues.

“The construction project presents opportunities for students to observe, learn and dream,” he wrote in an email. He added that the district is also using the project as a resource for many Lewiston Regional Technical Center programs.

— Andrew Rice 

Comments are not available on this story.