The rolling meadows and snow-capped mountains of Eagle County, Colorado, high in the Rocky Mountains, are a beauty to behold. But they are not immune to the school bus driver shortage.
Mostly consisting of White River National Forest and traversed by I-70, four communities — Edwards, Eagle, Gypsum and Vail — account for more than half of the county's population of 52,000.
The allure of seasonal ski and and outdoor jobs at the Vail and Beaver Creek resorts, not to mention the limited pool of candidates, complicate the driver shortage, making the challenge especially difficult to overcome. And then Eagle County Schools prematurely lost one of its very best last month.
Director of Transportation Melanie McMichael said 34-year veteran driver Vickie Foral Velez, 61, passed away, leaving the town and school district saddened and short one of its beloved leaders.
“(Vickie) will truly be missed by our transportation team,” McMichael added. “She had an absolute love for her students, so much so that when some driver's organized a sick-out, she declined because she didn't want her students left without a ride to school.”
That kind of dedication can be hard to come by, even on a good day, when driver candidates are abundant. According to McMichael, the fact that the district was already short five drivers made the loss of Velez even more painful.
While McMichael reported a raise to the bus driver minimum wage has helped matters, and an “influx” of new driver applicants has reduced the shortage to two, Eagle County Schools remains the lowest paying CDL employer in the area.
“As we all know, this is a hard job to do, specifically when it pays such low wages and the shifts are at odd times,” she said. “And in our valley the cost of living is very high, so many drivers have two to three other jobs.”
Despite this, McMichael reported that the district has managed to keep overall driver retention high, but this is mostly due to the fact that the veteran drivers “have been around a while, like me, (and) are going to retire soon."
McMichael added: "Luckily, other than Vickie who was due to retire, there is only one other for this year, so we will have three openings. That is, if no one else drops off."
Further complicating the issue is that the local housing market is picking back up, so McMichael fears that it won’t be long before the district loses some of the younger, stronger drivers to higher-paying, full-time positions.
“I can only be a cheerleader so long, praising drivers and showing appreciation,” she said.
The district covers nearly 1,700 square miles with 49 school buses and 34 drivers for 36 positions. McMichael said 3,500 students, about half of the total enrollment, are transported via the yellow bus.
The district website states that, in total, its buses log around 500,000 miles annually, and there has not been a student passenger injury on a school bus in more than 20 years.