Schools still face bus driver shortage

A school bus with a “now hiring” banner sits in front of Brownville-Glen Park Elementary School, 771 Main St., in Glen Park on Tuesday afternoon. Kara Dry/Watertown Daily Times

DEXTER — In large yellow letters against a blue background, an illustration of a lion’s head to the side, a banner attached to the side of a school bus reads: “Now Hiring Bus Drivers.”

As a new school year approaches, many north country school districts are still struggling to find bus drivers, both full-time and substitutes, which just adds to the stress of reopening schools amid a global pandemic. Shortages tend to happen year after year, and it is a problem seen across the country, though this year seems to be one of the worst in recent memory.

“Every district is struggling mightily with the challenge of finding enough bus drivers, and all are recruiting constantly and aggressively to find more qualified drivers,” said Stephen J. Todd, Jefferson-Lewis BOCES superintendent. “This shortage of drivers, as I understand it, is also severe in the private sector, with companies that employ drivers with commercial drivers licenses struggling to meet their demand for drivers in a market with a low supply of interested, qualified individuals.”

Bus drivers are in such short supply nationwide, that a school in Wilmington, Del., is offering parents $700 to drop off and pick up their children for the school year, according to The Washington Post, and Pittsburgh Public Schools, which needs more than 400 drivers, is delaying the return to classrooms by two weeks. While things haven’t gotten to the same level in the north country, many districts are offering sign-on bonuses and competitive wages in the hopes of enticing new recruits.

General Brown School District is using online messaging as well as physical signs, such as the banner attached to a school bus outside of Brownville-Glen Park Elementary School, in its recruiting efforts. The district is looking to hire both regular shift and substitute bus drivers, offering sign-on bonuses and training, according to its website.

According to David F. Christopher, executive director of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, the association recently completed a survey among members with 83% surveyed saying they won’t be adequately staffed for September startup, and 78% saying they didn’t think they could hire enough drivers to cover all regular runs for September startup.

“I think with the school bus industry it’s particularly difficult because the training piece is very lengthy — 60 to 90 days in many cases from the time you walk in to apply to the time you’re actually able to drive a bus on your own,” Mr. Christopher said. “School bus operators all across the state are making plans to be able to cover as best they can, through using full time staff in their garages and their office staff that are qualified. Some school districts have consolidated routes to reduce the number of drivers needed.”

A few years ago, the state Education Department adopted federal rules that require public school bus drivers to have a great deal of mechanical knowledge about the bus. Mr. Christopher said the road test requires the candidates to do a pre-trip inspection, part of which is a thorough inspection of mechanical operations of the bus, similar to what a truck or a coach driver would need to do. However, Mr. Christopher said such knowledge is probably not necessary for a school bus driver because the driver operates locally and there are always local mechanics who maintain the buses.

He noted that the association is committed to making sure that the school buses are mechanically sound and they are inspected twice a year by the New York State Department of Transportation.

“We did a study three years ago and we interviewed people on the street, we also interviewed bus drivers, and the bus drivers said upon retirement; it’s the best job they’ve ever had,” Mr. Christopher said. “Yet, when you speak to people on the street, it’s not something that they feel they’d be interested in doing. So there’s a disconnect between what the average person on the street sees the job as and how people who actually do the job feel. My guidance would be to try it out.”

For people considering a position as a driver, this is a good time to do so in terms of wages, bonuses and access to health insurance through the districts for which they drive.

A message on the homepage of the website for the Gouverneur Central School District states that First Student Gouverneur is looking for drivers to take on after school and travel team trips. Those who do not have their Commercial Drivers License, CDL, will receive paid training. Starting wage will be $17 an hour with a $3,000 sign-on bonus for fully credentialed drivers and a $1,500 sign-on bonus for non-CDL holders. The median school bus driver salary in 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, was $16.56 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Beaver River Superintendent Todd G. Green said his district was in good shape until about a week ago when it received a resignation. While now short, he said the district is able to cover with what it has, but finding drivers is proving difficult.

“We’ve advertised all summer anticipating there could be some openings, and we received no applications, not even substitutes,” he said. “We have 13 bus runs and want 13 bus drivers. We have 12, but then we also have a mechanic, a transportation supervisor plus a couple substitutes that can drive, but those are usually used in situations where people have to take time off. So we want to make sure we fill all regular runs and have some substitute drivers in the wings.”

At the Copenhagen Central School District, there are nine regular bus routes with drivers, according to Superintendent Scott Connell, and two substitutes to potentially cover them if needed. At this time, the district is not actively seeking new recruits like many others in the area.

“We would always encourage people to apply to be a sub, you can never have enough, but we have yet to run into a problem where we could not make a run,” Mr. Connell said. “That would be a quarter of our drivers being sick at any given day to cause a problem for us. We’re lucky, we could find ourselves in a position where it would be a problem and then we would have to address it.”

He noted that, if needed, the district does have the ability to combine routes. Being a small district, he said it makes things easier when making changes.

In an effort to combat the shortage and deliver solutions for districts, Jefferson-Lewis BOCES engaged Transportation Advisory Services to help with looking at other ways to address the issue.

According to Michelle Traynor, assistant superintendent for business, 10 districts in the Jefferson-Lewis BOCES region are involved, along with 11 in the St. Lawrence-Lewis region. Participating districts include South Jefferson, General Brown, Beaver River and Lowville.

“We engaged them because all of our districts are experiencing some sort of driver shortage, and now they’re just competing with each other,” Ms. Traynor said of TAS. “Rather than continuing down that path, which isn’t solving the problem, we’ve engaged TAS to help us look at other ways we can address those issues.”

TSA will examine staffing, fleet, equipment, facilities, contracts, operating services, and software in an effort to provide a regional solution.

“The study will provide options to districts, and that’s what we’re looking for,” she said.

The nationwide need for school bus drivers is expected to remain at critical levels over the coming months, which may impact the industry’s ability to provide consistent service well into the school year, according to the National School Transportation Association.

Scott B. Slater, superintendent of the South Jefferson Central School District, said the district has 27 contracted bus drivers and eight substitute drivers and could use five or six more drivers, both contracted and substitute.

“It’s great if we are able to start the school year off with the contracted staffing that we need, but when one of them is out sick and not having a sub, that creates an issue,” he said. “We are actively recruiting and advertising and working with union that represents our drivers looking at the current pay structure.”

According to Mr. Slater, new drivers would start with the district at about $18.50 an hour. For those who would need training, the district would pay for training.

He said for drivers, it’s a great benefit to work a few hours a day, 20 or so hours a week as a part-time employee, and be afforded not only sick leave and all the other things that come along with the contracts, but access to the district’s health insurance as well.

“Our drivers play such a critical role in the day-to-day operations of our schools. We wouldn’t have school if our drivers didn’t get the kids here,” Mr. Slater said. “They’re typically the first South Jefferson staff that greet our kids every morning, and they’re the last to say goodbye and good night to our kids — the bonds that they create with our kids are critical and help set our kids up for success.”

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