HUNTINGBURG — Six months ago, Southwest Dubois County School Corporation bus drivers Lee and Becky Blesch got a phone call. Their daughter would be going in for an emergency C-section.
The couple searched for substitute bus drivers to cover their routes that afternoon, but had little luck. Finally, Becky got someone to cover her route, making it to Indianapolis after her daughter went back for surgery. Lee, however, couldn’t find someone to cover his route and missed the birth of his grandchild.
Although an extreme example, the Blesches’ story highlights an issue all five area schools face: a shortage of bus drivers.
“It’s a pretty critical shortage right now,” said Rick Allen, superintendent of Southeast Dubois Schools.
The bus driver shortage isn’t a new issue for schools. A look back at school board meeting minutes from the last several years will show local schools still hiring bus drivers a few weeks after classes resume in the fall, and a substitute bus driver position might come before the board at any time.
Facing the shortage, school administrators have gotten creative with how they structure bus routes. At Southwest Dubois, for example, four buses run double loops, picking up and dropping off elementary-aged students before going back out to pick up middle and high school students.
“The reason we do that is because we don’t have enough buses or drivers,” said Kelly Murphy, Southwest Dubois transportation director.
Administrators have also gotten creative with how they search for bus drivers. Several local schools recently ran Facebook posts advertising the need for bus drivers. Southeast Dubois and Southwest Dubois both sent fliers home with their students hoping to entice some parents to drive a bus. Murphy has considered calling local companies to see if they have any retiring truck drivers, though he said he hasn’t yet.
“You just kind of have to go beat on the weeds to find drivers,” Murphy said.
Administrators see a lot of reasons for the shortage of drivers. One is that there are fewer of the people who used to serve as bus drivers. North Spencer Schools Superintendent Dan Scherry said 20 to 30 years ago, most bus drivers were farmers or stay-at-home parents who could take three or four hours out of their day to drive a bus. Now, not as many farmers still operate, and more often than not, both parents work full time.
Allen pointed to the area’s low unemployment rate as another factor in the shortage.
“The only people left (unemployed) don’t want to work,” Allen said.
Administrators also hear concerns about student behavior, liability and safety as reasons people don’t want to drive a bus.
Then, there are the many requirements bus drivers have to go through to become licensed. Bus drivers face many of the same requirements as over-the-road truck drivers, such as obtaining a commercial driver’s license, passing a physical and sitting through several eight-hour days of classes. Bus drivers must also pass a skills test that includes mechanical knowledge of the bus and driving skills.
“The skills test is very, very difficult,” Murphy said.
Despite the many requirements being a barrier for some potential bus drivers, administrators struggled to think of one they’d feel comfortable cutting.
“We want bus drivers to be prepared,” said Ryan Case, transportation director for Northeast Dubois Schools. “But there are lot of hoops to jump through.”
At this point in the year, local schools have their regular routes covered. The struggle now is finding substitute drivers and drivers who can drive for field trips or activities.
Allen said he can see himself calling parents to inform them that their child’s bus route won’t be running later this year when flu season hits.
“We told parents at orientation, ‘Have a back-up plan,’” Allen said.
State law doesn’t require schools to provide bus transportation, though most public schools do use local property taxes to provide the service.
To boost its driver pool, North Spencer requires its maintenance staff to be able to drive buses, both to cover school-owned routes and to serve as substitute drivers in a pinch. At Northeast Dubois, several teachers and coaches are licensed to drive buses.
“We can piece and part and move some students around so they can drive,” Case said.
Northeast Dubois also has several activity buses that seat 14 and don’t require special licensing for teachers and coaches to drive. Other local schools also use activity buses.
Administrators aren’t the only ones struggling with the shortage. Bus drivers like the Blesches feel the shortage every day.
Often, bus drivers have to come to work sick because they can’t find someone to cover their routes. The buses are more crowded than they used to be, said Becky Blesch, who’s been driving a school bus for over 25 years. The crowding forces students to sit three to a seat.
“You stuff kids in this bus, you’re just asking for problems,” she said.
Crowded buses mean more behavioral problems, she said, and fewer open seats for bus drivers to move students around when problems arise.
Despite the challenges that come with obtaining a bus driver’s license and driving a bus filled with around 60 students, Becky Blesch encourages people to try it.
“It’s absolutely worth it,” she said. “It’s a great way to supplement your income, and it’s fun to see the kids.”