GOSHEN — Elkhart County is facing a significant lack of available bus drivers, forcing local school corporations to navigate the troubling transportation woes that inevitably result from such a shortage.
As of the start of the new year, nearly every school district in The Goshen News readership area is looking for bus drivers — a situation that has increasingly become more the norm than the exception in recent years.
According to local school representatives, increasing rates of retirement among existing bus drivers, coupled with extensive job requirements for new recruits and a general lack of full-time positions, have combined to create a tough market for the hiring and retaining of bus drivers. Add to that the strong local economy and low unemployment rate that has many companies competing for employees and you’ve got a recipe for bus driver blues.
Alan Metcalfe, assistant superintendent with Goshen Community Schools, counts his school corporation among the many local school districts that are continuing to struggle with the ongoing driver shortage as they head into the new year.
“We’re still about three drivers short of being normally staffed," Metcalf said. "That’s without any substitutes. In fact our assistant director of transportation, Shelly Sharkey, who does our routing and dispatching, has been driving a bus for us. She’s got a CDL, so she’s been called away from her duties to help us drive buses. So it’s been kind of rough.”
According to Metcalfe, the lack of available drivers has been building for about the past four years, and while the school corporation has been able to figure out its routes for the most part, it hasn’t been without issues, requiring some creative thinking on the part of both the district’s administrators and transportation staff.
“And I’ll be honest with you, some of the things that we’ve done in the past that weren’t because of the bus driver shortage have helped us out. For example, when they expanded the walk zone, that reduced the number of buses needed. They did that because of the anticipated shortfall in the transportation budget back then, and we’ve had those walk zones for about seven years or so now,” Metcalfe said. “And we’re currently doing hub stops where we have more students go to one stop that is more centrally located, and that has helped with some of those efficiencies. We’ve also been doubling up routes, where we run one bus on two routes. We’re dropping kids off early at schools and then going out and getting more kids. So we’re doing everything we can with the staff we have. I think we are maximizing our capabilities, but nothing beats having more drivers.”
Tom Edington, superintendent of Wawasee Community Schools, painted a similar picture regarding his district’s difficulties with finding and retaining enough bus drivers.
“We, like other districts, do have a shortage in drivers,” Edington said of the situation. “We try to have a better than competitive pay scale and have great equipment for them to use as far as the buses, and help with training, and make that a part-time position that some people really want and would value.”
Even so, Edington said the corporation is currently operating with one unfilled route, and has a number of additional openings for drivers for trips, substitute drivers for other routes, etc.
Robby Goodman, assistant superintendent with Middlebury Community Schools, noted that his school corporation is also down several bus drivers with the arrival of the new year, though there has been some good news in terms of hiring within the past couple of months.
“While I wouldn’t call it a shortage, we were down quite a few drivers at the beginning of the school year,” Goodman said of the corporation. “We knew that we were going into this year with some retirements, so we had to do some extra routing, had to put a few more kids on buses than we would normally do. But I think in the last month or two we’ve actually added, I want to say, two or maybe three drivers. So we’re hopefully trending in a good direction, but we’re certainly not where we were I would say two or three years ago especially.”
For their part, Concord Community Schools officials late last month announced possible plans to change school day start times in order to allow for better utilization of the bus fleet.
“If you have a student bus rider, you are aware we have tremendous difficulties in efficiently transporting our students to and from school," the announcement posted to the district's website said. "We do not have enough drivers to continue moving half of our students at one time. The result is most of our buses make double runs to get all our student riders transported to and from school. As we continue to examine possible solutions, we believe the most efficient way to alleviate these difficulties is to change school day start times in order to create three groups of students beginning their school day at the same time. We are referring to this as Triple Tier Routing.”
The release goes on to note that the corporation is only in the preliminary stages of such a decision, explaining that there will be more opportunities for parents to consider the issues and share their thoughts on a possible solution in the weeks and months to come.
While by no means the norm, there are a few area school corporations that appear to have weathered the bus driver shortage a bit better than others. One of those is the Westview School Corp.
According to Yvonne Eash, transportation secretary for the corporation, while Westview is short of its ideal number of drivers, it has been able to fill all of its regular bus routes despite the shortage.
“There are some days when drivers don’t feel well in the mornings, and they can’t get a sub. But for the most part, we do have enough that we’re OK,” Eash said. “But like everyone else, you’d feel more comfortable if you had more on that roster."
Amy Rosa, director of transportation with Wa-Nee Community Schools, reported a similar experience on her end, noting that the school corporation continues to have a full driver roster and a solid pool of substitutes to back them up.
“Actually, I’m really happy to report at Wa-Nee we do not have a driver shortage,” Rosa said of the situation. “In a lot of corporations, you’ll find this huge disconnect between the schools and the buses, and our principles are very well aware that the school bus is part of the school. So when it comes to student discipline, when it comes to communication from the building to the bus, they’re just really good at bridging that gap. And that in turn helps make the driver feel like they’re a part of the school corporation in and of itself. You can feel kind of isolated as a driver, so it’s important to make sure that the drivers feel that they’re valued and that they are a part of the corporation.”
TOUGH TO HIRE
Driver shortages or no, all school corporations polled acknowledged that hiring and retaining enough bus drivers is always tough, particularly when the economy is strong and there are many other companies competing for employees.
“I think that’s really one of the consequences of a great economy,” Goodman said. “People can find a lot of different types of jobs, and it takes a special kind of person to handle a bus full of kids.”
Metcalfe offered a similar sentiment with regard to the issue.
“Part of it is, bus driving really is a part-time job. It’s really about four hours a day, and it’s broken up over the course of two parts of the day. And it’s only part of the year,” Metcalfe said. “So while I think our hourly rate is probably one of the most competitive in the county, again, it’s a four-hour day, so it’s hard to get people to commit to that.”
What’s more, the requirements for becoming a bus driver can also dissuade many prospective candidates from pursuing the profession.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, bus drivers today must have a commercial driver’s license (CDL), must possess a clean driving record and often may be required to pass a background check. They also must meet physical, hearing and vision requirements, and typically need a high school diploma or the equivalent.