Valerie Blaha, shown here with Jack Mann, joined the district as a bus driver in 2007. She now...

Valerie Blaha, shown here with Jack Mann, joined the district as a bus driver in 2007. She now manages routes for all of the district's special needs students.

Photo courtesy Spring (Texas) Independent School District

Valerie Blaha, transportation routing specialist for the Spring (Texas) Independent School District, earned statewide recognition for her role.

She was named 2021 Operations Specialist of the Year by the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation over the summer. Her district’s Board of Trustees last week noted the accomplishment.

“It is a very special honor,” said Jack Mann, Spring ISD’s director of transportation, during remarks to the board. He noted that Blaha was selected over more than 80 other nominees across the state.

Her detail-oriented nature and willingness to serve people that she works with represents “the team atmosphere that we try and build in the transportation department to support students in the district,” Mann said.

VIDEO: Texas School Bus Driver Receives Statewide Recognition

Each year, the TAPT Employee of the Year Awards Program honors a handful of staff members from school districts throughout Texas. Employees are nominated by district supervisors, and those selected are recognized during an annual awards banquet. Blaha found out she was in the running shortly before learning she had won.

“I didn’t even know that I had been nominated, so it was kind of cool,” Blaha said. “I was excited. You know, when you’re doing what you love, it’s easy, and you don’t do it for things like this, but it’s nice when somebody else recognizes it.”

Blaha joined the district in 2007 as a bus driver, after searching for a job that would allow her more time with her own young children after they got home from school. Later, she served as an auxiliary driver and trainer before working her way to routing specialist. Currently, she manages routes for all the district’s special needs students, many of whom require special equipment or other accommodations en route.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s like a puzzle. I mean, you have all of these houses and it’s like, OK, I have a bus and these kids that need to go to school. What’s the best, most efficient, and safest way to get them there? And it’s up to us to figure that out. It’s the coolest thing.”

Driver Sharing, Data-Driven Routing Help Operators Roll With Shortages

Like many in the department with driving experience, amidst a driver shortage, Blaha has been called upon to help keep things running. Most mornings, after arriving at the transportation center between 5 and 5:30 a.m., she starts on the road, driving several bus routes before coming back to the office to manage her regular responsibilities. Then, in the afternoon, she heads out again to drive students home.

“It takes a special person,” she said of bus driving. “It takes a lot of patience, but it’s a fun job. People just have to give it a chance. Before I did it, I was petrified. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But then, after I started, I was like, ‘This is great! I love this.’”