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All aboard the Bernie Cohen express

LO resident says he became a bus driver to spend time with children during his retirement

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - School bus driver Bernie Cohen has been a Lake Oswego resident for 28 years. He loves working with children, he says, because hes still young at heart.Waiting for a big yellow bus to trundle up to the neighborhood stop where you and your kid are shivering together on a cool morning is a time-honored parental tradition.

The scene is almost always the same: When the folding door slides open and your child mounts the steps, you glimpse an adult in the driver’s seat, smiling and beckoning children to hop aboard. You wave as the bus rolls away.

And then you wonder: Who was that man in the shorts and tall argyle socks behind the almost comically large black steering wheel? What’s he really like? And how does he spend the rest of the work day?

Meet Bernie Cohen.

Cohen is one of 45 local drivers honored in February as part of Love The Bus, a weeklong celebration sponsored by the American School Bus Council. Together, the drivers are responsible for getting kids to and from school throughout the Lake Oswego School District.

It’s a position Cohen came to late in life.

After spending four decades working as a pharmacist in Chicago and Portland, Cohen certainly could have stayed retired. But in February 2013, the 66-year-old signed on with the district’s transportation contractor, First Student.

“A lot of people said, ‘Oh, you’re going to hate it. The kids will drive you crazy,’” Cohen says. “That hasn’t happened. I’m a kid. I’m still young at heart, so I have a lot of fun with them.”

A man with a vibrant personality, Cohen says he has long been fascinated with transportation, especially trains. He owns a model steam engine and regularly sports a classic train engineer’s cap. A pin for Illinois Central Railroad adorns the hat, which has a goat sewn on the front.

“I say the goat on there is the old goat,” he says. “That’s me.”

The pin represents his home state. Though born and raised in Chicago, Lake Oswego is the city Cohen calls home now, and he has lived here for 28 years.

He knows the area and can definitely get your kids where they to need to go. He might even know your neighborhood better than you, especially now that he’s become a driver.

Cohen says the job’s quite a change from working with pharmacy customers, people who need or are on medicine and aren’t always at their best.

“After 41 years of dealing with all of the pharmacy customers, working with kids is pretty easy for me,” he says. “I think it’s great to instill positive values in our kids. I am happy to be kept busy and serve our community.”

Cohen says he’s always looking out for the kids and making sure they follow the rules: no standing up, no obscene language and no bullying or harassment. The children also must be respectful of their driver, he says.

If his young riders flout the rules, he gives them a warning. He says he has no problem sending high school students to the vice principal’s office for discipline if they misbehave again. But then, high schoolers are expected to behave like the young adults they are, he says, and they usually do.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - School bus driver Bernie Cohen has long been fascinated with transportation, especially trains. He owns a model steam engine and regularly sports a classic train engineers cap.“Middle school kids, they seem to be the ones that act up the most,” he says.

For minor infractions, some misfits are told to sit at the front of the bus. That’s a powerful threat, especially for older elementary school students.

“I’ve learned the kids will do anything to sit in the back of the bus,” Cohen says. “That’s such a big deal. I don’t know why. I asked the principal at Forest Hills (Elementary), and she says it’s always been a big deal. The big kids get to ride in the back of the bus. I guess it’s a status thing.”

He handles a wide range of kids every day, from kindergarteners at Oak Creek to students at Forest Hills and Lake Oswego High School. He has a long mid-day break, but the job has demanding hours: Cohen wakes up at 4:30 a.m. and heads to work for his first route at 6:20 a.m. His day ends at about 4:30 p.m.

His job also involves a pre-trip assessment of fluid levels and parts and a post-trip assessment of gauges and parts.

“I never much got my hands dirty being a pharmacist, so this is kind of new for me,” he says.

In his free time when he was younger, Cohen says he used to travel the world, visiting Botswana, South Africa, Turkey, Austria, Israel, Italy and the Caribbean. He’s traveled to 47 states, as well as Canada and Mexico. He loved scuba diving in the Caribbean, he says, and he tried his hand at golf, but it wasn’t for him.

Nowadays, Cohen loves spending time with his sister’s nephews and with his birds, Reggie the parrot and Boris the parakeet.

In life, he avoids the fast lane — especially when he’s behind the wheel of a bus with kids on board. Cohen says he’s cautious and drives extra slowly, no matter how other motorists might feel about it.

“This is a fast-paced world,” he says, “but I resist it.”

Bus stops

A new manager: Robert Kilian, who managed the First Student location in Lake Oswego, left the position in the last week of February. Retired transportation director Dennis Cook is scheduled to be interim manager of the location through the end of April. He has no plans to stay and will return home to Alaska once his scheduled run is done. Applications are not open for the position, and Cook said he does not know when a replacement will be chosen.

Want to be a bus driver?

First Student Inc. is hiring. Drivers usually work their route for a little more than four hours in the morning and evening.

Requirements include three years of professional or personal driving experience and a willingness to complete a background check.

To apply, call 503-534-2332 or stop by 4301 S.W. Beasley Way, Lake Oswego, OR 97035. For more information, visit www.firststudentinc.com.

LOSD seeking proposals for bus contractors

First Student has held the transportation contract since 2003

Longtime school bus drivers were in short supply last fall in the Lake Oswego School District, forcing the district’s transportation contractor to call in out-of-state substitutes who weren’t used to routes and didn’t know the area.

In some cases, the driver shortage led to late buses, according to an October letter from First Student to the LOSD. Although the district and the company almost parted ways, their agreement remained intact.

But that could be about to change.

Two other companies have expressed interest in taking over transportation duties for the district when First Student’s contract expires June 30, according to Stuart Ketzler, the district’s finance director, and Ketzler told the school board in February that he intends to reach out to another.

Ketzler could not be reached for comment this week, but he told board members Feb. 23 that he planned to issue a request for proposals in March, and that a contractor could be selected as soon as April.

Board member Patti Zebrowksi said at the meeting that she wanted Ketzler to strengthen any contract language on providing “competitive pay” for drivers, because low pay is one of the factors detractors blamed for First Student’s driver shortage.

Ketzler said he would.

The district, which previously handled its own transportation, contracted with First Student (formerly Laidlaw) in 2003 as a cost-saving measure. Even with a contractor, the district allocated $2.84 million for student transportation in the 2014-15 budget. District officials could not be reached to provide the cost of the current contract with First Student.

The new contract’s duration would be for five years, with the potential for renewals. Bidders will be evaluated on factors including costs and fees, qualifications of employees and a proven history in dealing with the community and school employees.

The request for proposals asks that potential contractors submit estimates not only for basic bus service, but also for additional projects such as providing a bus fleet that runs on a low-carbon or alternate fuel.

Another possible option is for the contractor to find a site to park buses other than the current bus garage at 4301 Beasley Way. The site is in a residential neighborhood and has been the subject of complaints about diesel emissions and the noise emanating from more than 40 buses as they come and go.

Also on the table: changing the bus schedule to give high school students a later start time. The new day could run from 8:15 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. instead of 7:40 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.

By Jillian Daley
503-636-1281, ext. 109
email: jdaley@lakeoswegoreview.com
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