How schools are tackling the ‘chronic’ shortage of bus drivers
(NewsNation) – School districts across America are struggling to recruit enough bus drivers to meet the needs of their communities.
About 20 million pre-high school students nationwide live too far to walk to school, according to the US Department of Transportation. Half of these children rely on the school bus.
“It’s been a chronic problem over the years, but the pandemic has made it worse as schools closed and went virtual, and drivers (who had grown up) tired of split shifts, low pay and benefits. poor social workers left student transportation to pursue other opportunities,” said Wes Platt, editor of School Bus Fleet, which covers school transportation issues.
Faced with these challenges, schools are responding with a series of strategies.
BUS DRIVER SALARY INCREASE
Some school districts are trying to stay competitive by raising pay to retain drivers who might consider leaving for higher-paying jobs.
Rockford Public Schools in Michigan has raised starting pay for bus drivers from $17 an hour to about $21 an hour this year.
“What we found was that it allowed us to maintain that some of the drivers we heard through the Vine were considering going to other schools,” said Michael Cuneo, assistant superintendent of finance. . “And we were able to get more bus drivers in the hopper.”
But the salary increase was not a panacea.
“There is more demand than supply. … It helped stem the tide, but it didn’t completely solve the problem,” he said.
Cuneo added that one thing districts should consider doing is also offering what he calls “psychic income” – showing bus drivers doing hard work that they are valued. Things like offering drivers breakfast and flexibility on their assigned routes.
CONSOLIDATION OF BUS STOPS
“We found ourselves at unprecedented staffing levels last year. And all sorts of route redesigns to optimize efficiency while ensuring transportation for all eligible passengers have been exhausted,” said Adam Searcy, director of facilities management for the Washoe County School District in Nevada.
The municipality has therefore decided to group the bus stops at the college and high school levels. This reduced the number of stops and the number of drivers needed.
“For the most part, we lumped them together at the next closest school,” Searcy said. “So basically putting a school bus stop in … a neighborhood elementary school. And that required many of those runners to travel a much greater distance to that more regional (hub).
Colorado Springs School District 11 has also consolidated bus stops. Kevin McCafferty, who is director of operations for transit, stressed that community communication is key when it comes to making big changes to public transit.
“These are tough decisions…and tough conversations that you need to have,” McCafferty said, adding that the district has its own app that it uses to keep parents informed of new developments.
Pay parents to drive children to school
When EastSide Charter School in Delaware struggled to find enough bus drivers to meet the children’s needs last year, general manager Aaron Bass decided to use part of his school’s transportation budget to encourage parents to drive their children to school instead.
The school was offering parents $700 per student for the school year if they agreed to drop off and pick up their children instead of using bus services.
“We were so used to doing things one way…we actually realized, Hey, we have funding for buses but we don’t have buses, how (can we use the ) funding to achieve the same result?” Bass said.
He noted that between 150 and 200 of the school’s 500 students used the arrangement.
In addition to helping the school deal with the shortage of bus drivers, relations between parents and educators have improved through daily contact during drop-off and pick-up.
“We used every second of that time,” Bass said, noting that they were able to increase parent communication and participation in school events.
The charter school was able to bring back its entire fleet of drivers for this school year, so it ended the parent incentive program.
The hub system in Washoe County and other measures taken by the district, such as increasing driver pay, were not enough. In the spring semester of 2022, they took a step described by Searcy as “unprecedented”: the establishment of a zone rotation plan.
“We divided the district into four separate areas and each week one of those four areas would not receive any transport,” he said.
In order to soften the blow of this move, the county began paying the parents.
“During the week that you are not receiving transportation services, you can claim mileage reimbursement for that week,” Searcy said.