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Brown’s bus full of compassion, fun, care for all who ride

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Education Minnesota St. Francis member Darci Brown

When the bus doors open on a sunny St. Francis morning, Darci Brown’s smile is really what can brighten a students’ day.

“Being the first trusting adult they see every day and the last trusting adult they see when they go home, it does make a big impact on them,” Brown said. “I talk to them a lot about what’s going on in their school day. I can notice right away if they’re having an off morning or something is wrong, and I try to engage with them and see if there’s anything I can do to help.”

Brown’s commitment to not only the physical safety of getting students to and from school, but her care for the whole student is why she was named the 2023-24 Education Minnesota Education Support Professional of the Year in October.

The award recognizing a bus driver as an educator is very important to Brown.

“Bus drivers are not heard,” she said. “We have a lot to say but nobody’s listening sometimes. So, to win this award, it’s really for all the bus drivers, not only in St. Francis but across the state of Minnesota. There’s a lot of Darci’s in our state, it’s not just me. I hope this motivates them to get involved. We can do it too, we’re finally being heard.”

Brown has been a bus driver for St. Francis Public Schools for seven years. She is just the second bus driver to win this award that honors Education Minnesota ESP members who go above and beyond for students.

Darci Brown is intentional in creating a welcoming space for students on her bus, including decorating for holidays, coloring contests and honoring a student each week as the “Student of the Bus.”

The parents of her students know how important she is to their education experience and even life outside of school.

“I have seen students go to her for advice, to vent, a hug or just to say hi. I have also seen students that have graduated and come running to her for a hug and a quick chat,” said Nicole Sjolseth, a parent who wrote a nomination letter for Brown for the ESP of the Year award. “In third grade, my son made the wrestling state tournament in Grand Rapids. Darci and her family drove to Grand Rapids to watch him wrestle in his first state tournament. She even had the best shirt made for the tournament.”

Brown knows how important her role is, not just for students but for the whole community.

“With our district being rather rural, our bus routes are much longer than other districts,” she said. “Some of my students are on my bus for an hour or more. This has allowed me to really get to know them and I feel like they get to know myself as well.

“My office is not stationary. My office travels everyday into multiple neighborhoods, I pass many businesses and you get to know different parts of your community and the people in it. You get to know the lady that walks her dog every day and you occasionally have a brief conversation with them. They recognize you when you see them at the local grocery store or Kwik Trip and they stop and say hello. They learn to identify bus drivers as people and as community members, not just someone they don’t want to get stuck behind when they are in a hurry.”

That community connection drivers intrinsically have with the community helped Brown and her fellow transportation union members when they were in a difficult contract fight with the district last spring.

“When our work group was asking for community involvement when our contact was coming to a possibility of a strike, our community showed up,” she said. “This comes from relationships. This comes from that wave, that smile, that nice gesture.”

During that negotiations process, which went to mediation and was a day short of the unit taking a strike vote before an agreement was made, Brown was at the center of the work as a negotiator and leader.

“When I was asked to be a negotiator for my group, I went in with very little knowledge of what it all entailed and what my exact role was,” Brown said. “As the process went on, I realized within my work group how little hope they had. That was my first goal—to build trust in our union and in myself. To provide the hope that was lacking. I am a very outspoken person and I’m not afraid to be in uncomfortable situations, ask the hard questions. But to also help people understand that I am not the union, we are the union, and this will be a fight that we all have to stand in solidarity.”

Going through that contract fight brought Brown and all of her fellow drivers much closer as colleagues and union members.

“We grew a sense of a family, hope and knew whatever happened, we were in this together until the end,” she said. “Knowing that we were able to avoid a strike and accomplish what we did within our contract gave myself so much encouragement and I felt empowered that this is something I was meant to do—help people.”

Her colleagues are the first to say that without Brown, their unit wouldn’t have the success in getting a fair contract.

“She worked hand-in-hand with the union and the bus drivers to organize and rally to show the district we were united in support of a good and working wage contract,” said David Schwab, a fellow driver in a nomination letter. “This is how she cares for her fellow drivers and wants the best for them.”

While in their contract fight, the transportation unit teamed up to work with the office professionals’ unit, also in negotiations and also under the Education Minnesota St. Francis union umbrella.

“Darci is a true leader, a supporter, a kind soul and fighter for what is right,” said Andrea Powers, the office professional lead negotiator in a nomination letter. “She led her work group through grueling negotiations, and she never left my side throughout mine. She is there for every student on her bus, every Education Minnesota member at St. Francis Area Schools, and all her colleagues. She makes us all feel welcome, all feel safe and where everyone belongs. “A fun fact about Darci Brown is that her American Indian Tribal name is ‘Ogemaquay,’ which means ‘strong women, leader’ that couldn’t be any more fitting.”

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