Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 24, 2011

Newsmakers: Bus driver 'put it behind me'

BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com

MANTON — Donna Valkner still drives a Manton school bus through the village of Kalkaska and rarely thinks about a collision with a plow truck that sparked an uproar in her community.

The incident occurred Feb. 26 on U.S. 131 as Manton's wrestling team traveled to a meet. Adults on the bus said a Michigan Department of Transportation plow truck based in Kalkaska sped up to catch the bus, then slid over and bumped it.

But Kalkaska County Prosecutor Brian Donnelly sided with the plow truck driver's version and said the bus driver caused the accident. He instructed Michigan State Police to issue tickets to Valkner, 54, for improper lane use and improper passing.

The Manton community and Valkner's employers rallied round her, hired an attorney and fought the tickets at a hearing with testimony from several of those who rode the bus the day the collision occurred.

An assistant county prosecutor, state police trooper, Michigan Department of Transportation supervisor and plow truck driver Aaron Begley showed up to make sure the tickets stuck.

Judge Lynne Buday dismissed the ticket that alleged Valkner caused the accident, but found her responsible for improperly passing the plow truck prior to the accident.

"I don't think about it," Valkner said. "I just feel like I was caught in the middle of this dispute. I paid my fine and put it behind me."

The fine was $130, plus $250 for half the lawyer's fees. Valkner also was suspended for five days without pay for not immediately reporting the accident to her supervisor, Linda Stahl.

Stahl, though, was among Valkner's biggest advocates for fighting the tickets. The incident lessened in importance as the days slipped by.

"Life moves on and everything went back to normal," Stahl said.

MDOT took no disciplinary action against its plow driver, state records show.

Valkner still sees the MDOT supervisor who showed up at her hearing, since his child rides her bus to school.

"I still talk to him and we are friends," Valkner said. "I don't have any hard feelings or anything."

Valkner said it's easy to keep the accident in perspective after an unrelated event this summer. Her sister, Deanna Searles, 46, was killed by a drunken driver on Aug. 21 in Van Buren County.

"She had a family and a zest for life," Valkner said.