By SVERRE BAKKE
Don't let her self-depracating sense of humor fool you.
When it comes to the business of transportating school children, Sharon E. Schalk is as no-nonsense as they come.
Schalk is the transportation supervisor for the White Salmon Valley School District, a job she's held since succeeding Ray Yarnell in 1980.
She takes her job very seriously--"I respect and expect excellence"--yet she strives to create a work environment that allows her employees to enjoy what they do and have some fun doing it.
"Our is such a unique job," Schalk says. "Anybody can drive a vehicle, and haul hay or haul logs for a living. But we haul human lives. It makes you accountable for everything you do, and we need to be accountable. There's no margin for error in what we do."
Schalk's efforts through the years to transform White Salmon's transportation department--which operates a fleet of 20 buses with 24 employees--into one of the safest in the state has been widely recognized.
In 1995, Schalk received the prestigious Excellence in Education Award from then-Gov. John Spellman. It marked the first time the award had been presented to a classified support employee.
Last month, Schalk was named one of 11 "Outstanding Women Leaders in Pupil Transportation" by School Transportation News, the trade's foremost national publication.
Schalk was nominated for the STN award by Allan Jones, Washington director of Pupil Transportation and Traffic Safety Education because of "her outstanding contributions to the children, families and community of White Salmon."
When news of the national award finally got back to her, Schalk says, "I'm not blind-sided too often, but I was really blind-sided by this one. I had no idea it was coming."
She adds, first with a poke of humor at herself, "I think they have the wrong person," then with humility, "it's a great honor and I appreciate it."
In putting the award into perspective, Schalk notes receiving it says more about the people who work for her than it does about herself.
"Yeah, I'm the person at the top of the department because the buck stops here, but this is really for everybody who works here, from the drivers to the mechanics who make my job easier," Schalk says. "I couldn't do what I do without them and their commitment and dedication to our kids' safety."
Schalk's career in pupil transportation began in 1975, when she hired on as a part-time bus driver. "It was supposed to be a part-time, temporary job, but it was the best part-time temporary job I've ever had," she observes.
When Yarnell announced his retirement in 1980, his boss, former White Salmon Supt. Pat Martin, approached Schalk to find out if she'd be interested in the supervisor job.
Schalk said no. She enjoyed her "part-time temporary job" of driving bus but had three children and a husband to look after, plus she bowled every Wednesday night. She didn't think it could work.
Martin asked her to think about it anyway. Schalk agreed to do that and, at Martin's request, drew up her description of what the job should be, including a salary.
Schalk says she thought that would be the end of it. But then one day Martin showed up again at the leaky, one-bay Quonset hut that housed the transportation department.
"He said, `Congratulations, the school board hired you last night,'" Schalk recalls the exchange. "I said, `You've got to be kidding.' But he wasn't and I felt I couldn't turn him down this time, so I took the job."
Since Martin, Schalk has had four bosses: Rick Melching, Edward Fisk, Rich Carter and now Dale Palmer.
It was under Carter that Schalk realized one of her greatest achievements as district transportation supervisor: spearheading the lobbying effort that led to the building of the transportation and maintenance center across Bruin Country Road from Wayne M. Henkle Middle School.
Schalk and her staff moved into the center in 2002, culminating a process that saw Schalk and other district officials lobby for the state funds that helped bring the project to fruition.
Moreover, Schalk played a leading role in convincing Glenwood, Klickitat and Trout Lake school districts and the regional education support district to join in the forming of the state's first transportation cooperative in 20 years.
"It's been the best thing to come along since peanut butter," Schalk says of the Mid-Columbia Transportation Co-op. "During the last state inspection, all our buses passed with flying colors."