Deb Spruytte would rise before the sun — hoisting her newborn son in one arm and his diaper bag in the other — climb on her school bus and begin her morning route.

More than two decades later, Spruytte is still driving a school bus — and still winning state awards for her driving prowess.

Spruytte, transportation supervisor for the Ottawa school district, was handed the grand champion traveling trophy — signifying she is the top school bus driver in Kansas — during the Kansas State Pupil Transportation Association’s 43rd annual Summer Symposium and Safety Competition June 17-19 in Hutchinson.

“It’s the third time her name has been on the grand champion trophy,” Tom Parks, the Ottawa school district’s director of transportation, said. “I am very proud of what Deb has accomplished [in her career].”

Spruytte began driving a school bus in the Blue Valley school district in 1990, she said.

“My son was six weeks old when I started driving a bus, and I would take him with me,” Spruytte said. “We would get up at O-dark-thirty and head out on my morning route.”

A mechanic who worked on the school buses rigged a “seat belt contraption” for her son, Brett, she said.

“You couldn’t do that nowadays, of course, but babies weren’t carried around in car seats on the bus,” Spruytte said, explaining the need to come up with a safety harness for her baby. “The kids loved having [Brett] on the bus. They would take care of him and make sure his bottle was filled. They had a lot of fun taking care of him.”

Spruytte joined the Ottawa school district’s transportation department a year ago after driving buses in the Kansas City metro area throughout her career. Since 1990, she has been competing in the KSPTA’s annual safety competition commonly referred to as a “bus rodeo.” In addition to earning grand champion honors for the third time, Spruytte took first place in the “experienced conventional” bus category.

The event featured 68 bus drivers from across the state who qualified to compete at the state fairgrounds by finishing among the top drivers at regional competitions last spring.

The competition features a precision driving course, a written exam that tests a driver’s knowledge of all state rules and regulations, as well as educational seminars and training sessions, KSPTA officials said.

Spruytte and two other Ottawa school bus drivers who competed at state — Velma Kissinger and Jacque Mundhenke — said the precision driving course was the hardest part of the competition. First-time competitors Mundhenke and Kissinger, who both drive special education buses for the Ottawa school district — brought home state trophies in the rookie mini-bus division for their efforts. Mundhenke finished third and Kissinger, who took first at regionals, brought home the fourth-place trophy from Hutchinson.

The precision driving obstacle course included events to test a driver’s ability to parallel park, back up in a confined space and maneuverability.

“I have to admit I didn’t have the best drive of my life,” Spruytte said of the obstacle course.

But Spruytte scored well enough on the driving course, written exam and other tests to take first place, Parks said.

Parks, vice president of the KSPTA’s Northeast District, served as one of the judges at the state competition, he said.

The precision driving course is aptly named, Parks said, because it truly is a grueling course that tests a driver’s skill.

“We try to keep three buses on the course at a time, but it still takes all day to run all the buses through [the competition],” Parks said. “It takes each bus 28 to 35 minutes to complete the course.”

During another aspect of the competition, drivers were required to find six defects on their buses in six minutes — and one of the defects this year was a homemade bomb strapped to the undercarriage of the bus, Spruytte said.

The Reno County SWAT team also demonstrated how it would retake a bus during a hostage situation, Spruytte said.

“It’s about so much more than the [bus rodeo],” Spruytte said. “You will learn things during those three days that we couldn’t simulate here [in Ottawa]. It’s a very valuable experience for any bus driver.”

Spruytte, Mundhenke and Kissinger trained for the state driving course in the Ottawa Middle School parking lot in the days leading up to the competition.

The drivers are not paid while they are training and participating in the competitions, Parks said.

“This is strictly done on a volunteer basis,” Parks said. “Some drivers also have to pay their own way [for the state competition]. Fortunately, the Ottawa school board sees the benefit of the competition and understands the value it places on bus safety. The school district paid for our travel, meals and lodging.”

Drivers are planning some fundraisers to help defray the district’s costs next year, Parks said.

“I hope the success we had this year at state will encourage some of our other drivers to want to compete next year,” Parks, a retired state trooper,  said.

The training and the experiences at the state competition made Mundhenke a better bus driver, she said.

“I feel a lot more confident now when I have to back into a confined space,” Mundhenke said. “I’m a better bus driver now than I was before I started preparing [for competitions].”

Kissinger also found the experience valuable — not only from a driving standpoint — but in the knowledge she gained from talking with other bus drivers in Hutchinson, she said.

“You had the chance to talk with other special education bus drivers, and you find that you go through a lot of the same experiences, and you talk about how you handle different situations,” she said. “They also had actors on the [special education] buses, which gave you a chance to deal with different situations that could occur [on the bus]. It was a really valuable experience.”

The purpose of the driving competition is to enhance the safe transportation of Kansas school students, Deb Romine, with the Kansas Department of Education’s bus safety division, said.

“While the school bus has always been known — and still is — the safest mode of transportation in the United States, events such as these provide for additional training and a showcase for the skills of school bus drivers,” Romine said.

Spruytte will keep the grand champion traveling trophy until the competition next year. The traveling trophy is named for the Kansas Department of Education’s longtime bus safety division state director, Larry Bluthardt, who retired last year after 25 years with the department. Bluthardt is considered to be a pioneer in bus safety — not only in Kansas but on an international level, Parks and Spruytte said.

As the state’s top bus driver, Spruytte will be eligible to compete in an international competition July 20-21 in Tulsa, Okla., Parks said.

It will mark Spruytte’s last competition for awhile, she said. She recently was appointed to serve as vice president of KSPTA’s Eastern District, she said.

“I can’t compete while I’m on the board, so I’ll be turning it over to these girls,” Spruytte said as she looked at Kissinger and Mundhenke Thursday morning at the school district’s transportation complex on Wilson Street. “It will be up to them and our other drivers to carry on the tradition.”

The safety competition and education symposium was started more than 40 years ago out of a desire by the association to improve the safety of transportation for schoolchildren.

“In the early ‘70s, I think 30 to 40 children [on average] were killed in school bus accidents each year [in the U.S.],” Spruytte said. “Since we’ve started these competitions and safety training to make bus drivers better, the national average now is seven or eight deaths per year.”

Spruytte pointed to a chart on the wall of the Ottawa bus barn that indicated eight children were killed in school bus wrecks last year in the U.S.

“Of those fatality accidents, all of them occurred during the daylight, on good roads, under sunny conditions,” Spruytte said. “How does that happen? That’s why we do this training, and that’s why we will continue to do this training until that average drops to zero.”