HomeOperationsColorado District Utilizes Non-CDL Program to Help with School Bus Driver Shortage

Colorado District Utilizes Non-CDL Program to Help with School Bus Driver Shortage

Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Colorado aren’t suffering from the school bus driver shortage as bad as some school districts, and district officials are attributing the success to Igor Petrovic, the transportation and fleet director and a 2022 School Transportation News Rising SuperStar.

Petrovic was proactive as the district emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic. His first step, as Adams 12’s Chief Operations Officer Pat Hamilton relayed in his nomination of Petrovic for Rising Stars, was putting the district through a route optimization process unlike the district had taken before.

“The route optimization had to work within our three-tiered route system and could not increase our walk distances,” Hamilton explained. “Over the summer of 2021, Igor and his team worked on updating our route packages. As a result of the route optimization work, Igor identified several routes that could be served by smaller activity buses that did not require commercial driver’s licenses to operate the routes.”

Petrovic adopted the non-CDL route program and was immediately successful, Hamilton said. “Many of our driver assistants signed up for the program and went through the training required for our non-CDL drivers,” he continued. “Throughout the school year, as drivers left our system, many of our non-CDL drivers applied for the CDL driver positions [because of] becoming more comfortable with transporting students. As a result of the route optimization and non-CDL driving program, Adams 12 Five Star Schools never suffered from the driver shortage many other districts faced. All students who wanted or needed transportation received it. That is a rare thing in the current hiring drought.”

Petrovic started his career in transportation in 2009 and was an operations manager across different locations. In October 2018, Petrovic started at Adams 12 as the transportation operations manager. He explained that a few months into working at the district a department leadership change occurred, and Petrovic moved into the interim director role and then to the full-time transportation director.

“From 2018 up until 2020, everything was going smooth,” Petrovic said. “…and then the pandemic hit.”

Petrovic explained that when the pandemic took its toll on transportation, he realized he needed to change up routing and better optimize his operations. He noted that all employees were kept on staff and paid during the pandemic, but many decided that they weren’t going to come back to school bus driving.

“We were looking at possibly not being able to open with the same level of service that we had before the pandemic,” he explained. “We tried all of our usual hiring events and open houses and trying to get people brought on board, but it just wasn’t working.”

Instead, Petrovic said that he had to review the routes and see where stops could be combined as much as possible to reduce the number of buses and drivers needed on the road. It was during this time he inquired about the Small Vehicle Program, which the Colorado Department of Education granted guidance on and approval of.

He said he learned districts can run non-CDL vehicles (such as most Type A school buses, shuttle buses, and even SUVs and sedans) that transport fewer than 14 passengers, which helped the district serve students who lived outside of the district. Petrovic added that the transportation team also looked at routes that didn’t have a lot of ridership and created a program to transport these students with non-CDL drivers.

“It was a much easier process to recruit, hire and retain those non-CDL drivers and it worked perfectly because it became a stepping stone for us for CDL drivers,” he said, adding that before even a bus assistant to a school bus driver was a huge transition. But now, he said his department can recruit non-CDL drivers and transition them to drive a yellow school bus, when the employees realize that driving children and the vehicle size is manageable.

This school year, Petrovic said Adams 12 increased from six to 10 non-CDL routes with the potential to add more. “We’ve had the most success with our bus assistants becoming CDL drivers,” he added, noting that it usually takes them a school year to realize they’re ready for the next step and get their CDL.

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Before COVID, the district had around 104 CDL routes, and now it is down to 81. “We’ve done a great job combining some of these routes and stops but we’d like to get back to some of our normal numbers,” he said. “It’s just that Denver has been a really difficult area to market and hire.”

Additionally, the school district updated its bell times to align more closely with research that high school students need more sleep. He said Adams 12 adjusted its entire three-tier system up by 30 minutes.

“There was an initial reaction to the end time for middle school, which pushed them to 4:15 p.m. from 3:45 p.m.,” he said. “Our drivers included, they were concerned they would be driving a little bit more in rush hour traffic. But we’re about two years along and seems like most people are getting used to it.”

He noted that middle school is still a big concern but keeping bell times within a three-tier system helps with the driver shortage.

“We’re all trying to do our best to survive out of this,” Petrovic said of the non-CDL program. “It all honestly went pretty smooth for us, so the advice would be to actually try it because it does seem to be working well. It does seem to be an untapped resource because it’s easier to find people, it’s a faster turnaround time for training purposes, and to give opportunities for your bus assistants to transition into a CDL driver over a long-term period where they might be initially intimidated by that.

“My advice would be to look into if your department of education allows it. It’s a much more financially cost-effective route to do and it gives opportunities for your staff, and it’ll be easier to hire.”

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