SWANTON - For local school-bus mechanic Dave Smith, winning a state competition earlier this year was overwhelming enough.
But taking down a national competition against 16 other state champions?
"I'm proud - but more, I'm in shock," Mr. Smith said last week after returning home from Greenville, S.C., where he took first place among technicians in the America's Best competition sponsored by the National Association for Pupil Transportation. "I've got people coming up to me on the street saying, 'Way to go!'•"
Mr. Smith said he is humbled by all that attention, because he doesn't believe he's any more dedicated to pupil safety than are his counterparts around the region.
But the championship, he said, "is a personal feather in my cap - it feels good."
Russ Griggs, the Fayette superintendent of schools who is filling in as Swanton's top executive while Paulette Baz is on maternity leave, said Mr. Smith's competitive success validates his reputation around the region as "an excellent school-bus mechanic.
"He has a knack for trouble-shooting. His real strength is being able to analyze a problem," Mr. Griggs said.
While Mr. Smith's 483.1-point total score didn't quite reach the maximum possible 600 points, Marshall Casey, the head of bus maintenance for the South Carolina Department of Education, said it was above-average for a champion in the competition, now in its sixth year.
"We make it pretty tough on them. It's difficult enough to ensure that [a perfect score] won't happen. It's definitely tougher than a normal ASE exam," Mr. Casey said, referring to mechanics' certifications offered by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. "Anyone that comes out and places at the top of this group has done an extremely good job."
The competition included a 50-question written examination and three hands-on maintenance exercises: a bus to trouble-shoot, an electrical-system work station, and tire inspection.
The NAPT paid for competitors' travel expenses, while Swanton Local Schools allowed Mr. Smith to use professional-development time to attend the event.
There is no cash prize for the champions, but there is a plaque. Mr. Smith said that along with the opportunity to compete, the event gave him a chance to talk shop with other state-champion mechanics and attend training seminars.
Mr. Casey said participation in the national event has grown, with 17 state champions the highest yet, but two states that sent competitors in the past didn't participate this year for financial reasons.
Mr. Smith said he hopes his victory will encourage more school districts to enter their mechanics in state competition, because that encourages excellence.
"There are a lot of good mechanics working in the school districts around here," he said.
And if he wins the Ohio School Bus Mechanics' Association's competition next year, Mr. Smith won't have to travel quite so far to defend his national title: Mr. Casey said the 2010 NAPT event will be in Jasper, Ind.