Edgerton bus company calling it quits after 65 years

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Thursday, June 9, 2011
— Bus driver Nicki Schaffitzel threw a 1,000-yard stare into the rearview mirror of school bus No. 2 as she accelerated up a hill heading out of Edgerton.

Schaffitzel scanned for traffic behind her as her bus rumbled and its dashboard-mounted fans wheezed.

It was 90 degrees, the kids were rambunctious and the bus door kept sticking. A student had forgotten her purse at the high school and another had cut her finger and needed a tissue to stop the bleeding.

For Schaffitzel, a driver for Burns Bus, it was a typical late-spring afternoon route, except for one thing: When school ends today, so does Burns Bus.

A small family-owned school bus company, Burns Bus has held a contract for student transportation with the Edgerton School District since 1946, when founders Paul and Bill Burns started the Edgerton company.

But this spring, Burns lost the contract. The district, which has seen declines in revenues in recent years, opted to instead hire Riteway Bus Service, estimating the change would save about $140,000 a year.

Riteway has a fleet of 500 school buses statewide, and its client list includes 25 school districts. By comparison, Burns has 18 buses, about 30 employees and just one client—Edgerton School District.

The lost contract spells the end of Burns' 65-year run.

"There's so many stories. I could write a book. But right now, my mind's just in a fog," said Burns Bus owner Larry Burns.

He's run the bus company since 1971, when he took over for his father, Paul.

While his drivers were off on afternoon routes, Burns, 61, sorted through paperwork on the pending sale of his bus garage, which is on Mechanic Street near downtown Edgerton. Riteway plans to buy the garage and Burns' fleet, and the deal could close July 1, Burns said.

Meanwhile, most of Burns' 26 drivers have applied with Riteway. The company plans to hire them to drive Edgerton routes, Burns said.

Burns, who now plans to retire, said he's not surprised the school district severed ties with his company. He said small school bus contractors have dwindled to nil, and he compared Burns Bus to a small-town cobbler who can't compete with chain shoe stores.

"It's just a trend," he said.

His wife, Susan Burns, said the last few weeks have felt surreal.

"I don't know if every business is like this, but our workers, they're a gift and an asset. They're our family, our workers, and pretty soon they won't be," she said.

A long ride

Schaffitzel, who has driven for Burns for almost 30 years, has busing ingrained in her the way farming or preaching is for some. Growing up in rural Elk Mound, her dad owned school buses, and her mother drove one of them.

"I started driving a bus because it's what I knew," Schaffitzel said.

For Burns Bus, Schaffitzel has driven through snowdrifts, freezing rain and hard times in her own life. In return, she said, the company has treated her like family.

For instance, when she underwent cancer treatments a few years ago, Burns allowed her to work half days, driving just in the afternoon. Schaffitzel's not sure how another company would have handled her illness.

"You can't take for granted how you're treated in a family-owned company. Not everyone's so lucky," she said.

As Schaffitzel navigated tree-lined hills south of Edgerton, William Buccholz, a fourth-grader on the bus, chattered about how many of the roads nearby are listed in local author Sterling North's novel "Rascal."

He said in small towns such as Edgerton, little things such as road names are important to people, even enough to write about them. Switching topics, Buccholz pointed to a window on the bus that hung crooked. It wouldn't shut.

"That's been broken a while," he said.

Buccholz said he's heard a new bus company is taking over next year.

"Maybe that means I'll get to ride a brand new bus," he said.

Schaffitzel smiled. As a bus driver, she's heard a million kid conversations. She never tires of them.

"With this job, you have to really like the kids. I mean really love them," she said.

Last stop

Schaffitzel rounded a turn on a narrow street in the bottoms by the Rock River. Her bus was nearly empty. The radio crackled and a high, warbling voice echoed out.

"Hi, Gramma," the voice cried.

"That's Quincy, my grandson. He's two-and-a-half," Schaffitzel said, beaming.

Schaffitzel said Quincy often waits at the bus garage while she's on routes, and sometimes Burns' staff allows him to hop on the radio. It's a nicety she's not sure a larger bus company would allow.

"Probably little things like that you won't be able to do anymore," she said.

Schaffitzel's applied to drive an Edgerton route for Riteway. She said she might find out this week if she's hired.

No matter what happens, Burns said he wishes the best for his drivers and their families. Even after his garage changes hands, he plans to visit from time to time.

Burns said he'll be relieved to lay down the weight of worry over students. For half his life, he's felt it every day.

"It's been a run—millions of miles and a lot of responsibility. The kids were mine, ours, for a certain time of day. And that always weighs on your mind, the safety of so many children," he said.

There's still a little time for the old company, a few more routes.

"We've still got a day or two left. We've given safe service all these years," he said. "I hope we're remembered at least for that. I don't know."

Last updated: 5:42 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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