LEBANON, Ky. — As of December, a maintenance director here known to some as the “godfather of transportation” in the state will retire, or “step down,” as he prefers to think of it, after 44 years of service.
Ricky Courtwright, the director of vehicle maintenance at Marion County Public Schools, started out as a maintenance technician while he was still in high school. Working on cars had always come naturally to him, since it runs in the family.
“My father had a bunch of asphalt trucks and did his own mechanical work, so I got started in that direction,” Courtwright explained.
Meanwhile, Courtwright’s father knew a local school district’s superintendent who was looking for someone to help work on the buses. Courtwright was hired the summer before his senior year in high school, and that work led to his first full-time job, at Marion County Public Schools, in January 1974. He was running the department as maintenance director in just five years.
Years later, school transportation in the state underwent substantial changes after a tragic accident in Carrollton in 1988, in which 27 people were killed in a fiery bus crash.
“Changes [were made] to buses to keep them as safe as possible, and there were a lot of changes in driver training methods and in the way our maintenance facilities were handled,” Courtwright said.
One of those changes included a school bus inspector program started in the state in 1992. The program had been created in response to a new law that required school buses to be inspected once a month by a state-approved inspector, according to Courtwright. Around that time, the state director of pupil transportation asked him to become a state-certified inspector and inspector instructor, and he stepped up.
“They wanted people who were really involved in the maintenance end of school bus work,” he said. “At that time there were probably about 14 to 16 people statewide who were trained to be inspector instructors.”
The biggest changes that Courtwright has seen in his handful of decades as a school bus mechanic are related to the response to the accident in Carrollton: a shift in fueling toward diesel and propane and away from gasoline; left-side emergency doors being required on every bus, as well as roof hatches and push-out windows on each side of the bus; and Kevlar seat covers versus vinyl fabric without fire protection.
The many changes made over the course of Courtwright’s career have been for the better, he added.
“In the beginning, we probably didn’t think [so], but as time has gone on, it has proven that the changes we made were for the better.”
Courtwright is a longtime member of the state’s school bus specification committee, having served on the committee for 30 years, and has participated in pilot projects such as equipping school buses with air brakes.
Scott Spalding, the director of transportation for Marion County Public Schools, said that the department’s phone often rings with calls from other school districts seeking advice from Courtwright, and so he has dubbed him “the godfather of transportation in Kentucky.”
“[The nickname] has picked up some steam. He is really well-respected across the state,” Spalding added.
Because of Courtwright’s years of service and extensive knowledge of school transportation, Spalding said he has leaned on him, valuing his opinion on many topics.
“He is very knowledgeable in a lot of ways, not just in bus maintenance. Bumper to bumper, no one knows the school bus business better than Ricky Courtwright. … He is an invaluable resource that has helped me grow as a director.”
As he leaves his position at Marion County, Courtwright plans to turn his attention to some projects around the house and may take a transportation-related job part time.
“I really appreciate having the opportunity to work for this county, under the guidance of the Kentucky Department of Education,” he said. “We have some really fine people. I like to think that our county and the state have a good safety record because of everyone involved.”