HomeSpecial ReportsGrowing School Districts Seek More Buses, Drivers

Growing School Districts Seek More Buses, Drivers

Growing school districts face challenges finding more resources, vehicles and drivers.
School districts always look for innovative ways to provide students with more efficient and cost-effective transportation. However, a significant challenge is finding enough qualified bus drivers in a competitive market clogged by other school districts, trucking companies and delivery services.

The Wentzville R-IV School District in Missouri serves a rapidly growing population of students, and the transportation department is committed to meeting the needs
of the students and community. “We typically purchase buses over seven-year, lease purchase agreements. We are in the process of analyzing our fleet and developing a strategic bus replacement plan,” said Brynne Cramer, a spokeswoman for the school district that serves the St. Louis suburb.

Finding willing and qualified bus drivers is another story. The Wentzville district has gotten creative by using floating drivers, office staff, coaches and teachers with
CDLs as well as loopbacks and leased vans. It has found ways to combine athletic trips and is always looking for ways to be more efficient.

“We recruit and hire drivers through Drive the Bus events over the summer, on-the-spot interviews year round, and targeted marketing,” said Cramer. “We prioritize a positive work environment, providing health benefits year-round. We also implemented equalized pay for all drivers, aides and support staff and conducted safety meetings for our team. We have accommodated alternate stop requests and implemented a Transportation Assistance Form to streamline communication.”

Cramer added that bus routes are established based on recommendations from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the school district’s board of education policies.

All in-district students residing one mile or more from their school are eligible for transportation services. To improve efficiency, the average distance from a secondary
student’s home to their bus stop is about one-half mile, and the average distance from an elementary student’s home to their bus stop is about two-tenths of a mile. Cramer explained that this average distance allows buses to make fewer stops across the district and helps with timely arrivals.

Cramer noted that routes can be staggered depending on the school start time to allow for more efficient use of resources and enhanced productivity.

Meanwhile, the Northwest Independent School District in Texas, located just north of Fort Worth, operates its transportation department in-house after several years of using a third-party company. The district also purchases its own buses.

“We typically buy new buses from bond funds. Bonds for buses and technology are on shorter notes than bonds for schools and other buildings,” said Anthony Toosie, a spokesman for the district.

The district has around 200 buses and runs 163 bus routes for schools and uses buses for field trips, extracurricular activities and similar transportation matters. “We sustain net enrollment growth of about 1,400 to 1,900 students annually. We currently have more than 31,000 students. To accommodate this growth, we annually add several routes and run staggered schedules and routes,” Toosie explained. “All employees, including bus drivers, must undergo background checks for the safety of students. Transportation is provided to students who live two miles or farther from their zoned school or have a hazardous route, such as a highway they must cross to get to school.”

Most of the buses are of a traditional size, although there are also buses for special student populations, including buses with wheelchair lifts. During the enrollment process each year, families are asked to indicate whether their students will ride the bus. Planners use this information to create bus routes for the school year. The challenge, Toosie said, is that sometimes families forget this step. This can cause more students to ride the bus at the start of the school year than anticipated. School buses must then be rerouted a few weeks into the school year to accommodate this increase in student riders.

“When we encounter situations with more students riding the bus than indicated, we communicate with families and encourage those who can to consider transporting
their children to school while we reroute buses and work to accommodate the growth,” said Toosie.

In Tennessee as is the case nationwide, many school districts are looking for ways to get more years and miles out of their school buses. The state is facing a shortage of drivers and buses. “In Tennessee, we don’t purchase many new buses,” said Alex Spann, student transportation manager for the Tennessee Department of Education. “We keep older buses up to 18 years or 200,000 miles.”

The state has received some federal money that has been put toward new buses. Spann said it costs between $135,000 and $175,000 to buy a new internal combustion school bus, and fuel costs have increased. In some districts, Spann said, buses are used more and will have to double runs. Students who live within a mile and a half of their school must walk or arrange their own transportation to and from school.

“In some of the larger school districts, older students can use public transportation to get to and from school,” noted Spann. Another area for improvement is finding and keeping good school bus drivers. “We are finding more drivers, but there is still a shortage of qualified drivers,” Spann added.

One problem is the split shift. Many employees don’t want to work only a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon. Others may be able to obtain a CDL, but they want to avoid driving buses full of children or dealing with parents and administrators.

An option is having fewer requirements for drivers who transport students. Kentucky Sen. David Yates is the main sponsor of Senate Bill 92, which he referred to as a common-sense solution to improve the transportation problem in Kentucky. This legislation would allow schools to employ drivers who don’t have a CDL to transport students to and from school using smaller multi-passenger vans and vehicles. According to a Kentucky General Assembly Report, these vehicles transport students to. extracurricular activities.

Finding buses is not a significant problem for many Florida school districts, but finding qualified drivers is. Robert Manspeaker, director of transportation for the Florida Department of Education, said school systems offer hiring bonuses to encourage people to consider driving school buses. Some have used the state’s $15 million Driving Choice grant to increase driver pay last school year. Most districts offer paid CDL training and full benefits, including a pension.

“Districts are attending job fairs and looking for ways to encourage more people to consider becoming bus drivers. In most districts, finding drivers is a big problem,” said Manspeaker. “Some districts have used smaller vans.” Arby Creach, director of transportation services for Osceola County School District in Florida, said he, too, has faced challenges in finding qualified drivers and mechanics. He said he has used the state’s Driving Choice grant to fund bonuses for new drivers.

Last year, Osceola was able to pay to a $6,000 bonus for drivers who had a CDL and $5,000 for those who still needed to obtain one. This year, Creach added, there were funds left over for an additional $1,000 bonus for new drivers with or without their CDL.

“We need new drivers, and we pay for drivers to get the training for a CDL license. This is a $3,000 to $5,000 value,” said Creach. “We also really need bus mechanics.
A problem we are facing is that mechanics go to work for companies that pay more than we do. We have found that when the economy is good and other transportation companies are hiring, it is harder to find drivers and mechanics. But when more people are seeking employment, we have more applicants. We offer stable jobs and we have more days off than many trucking companies. We offer good jobs.”

To get new buses, Creach receives funding from developers who want to do business in Osceola County. Companies that want to build must pay impact fees, and this includes money to pay for school construction, more teachers, and more transportation. Creach said he has used the money generated from impact fees to buy nine or 10 buses in the past year.

Meanwhile, Jim Ellis, director of pupil transportation for Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia, said he needs help hiring enough drivers. The district offers signing bonuses and reaches out to people who might make good drivers. But it takes work to convince people to drive school buses. Many people want to avoid driving split shifts. Plus, driving a school bus can be difficult, and some people want to avoid driving a bus full of kids. Also, they want to avoid going through a full background check and completing CDL training for a lower-paid job.

“I feel drivers need to be paid above the fray of other jobs because we transport the most precious cargo.” said Ellis. “I’m sure parents would agree that bus drivers
transporting their children should be paid more than delivery drivers like UPS, Amazon, Fed-Ex and others.” But not all school districts are in a dire need of drivers. Jeff Reiss, the transportation supervisor for Delaware Valley Regional High School in New Jersey, is in a more pleasant situation. He shared that he has enough bus drivers and has even loaned some to other nearby school districts that need drivers.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the March 2024 issue of School Transportation News.

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