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School bus drivers in demand

Park Rapids joins other school districts statewide in trying to fill needs brought on by bus driver shortage. (Kevin Cederstrom/Enterprise)

The call out for bus drivers is an annual plea for the Park Rapids School District and most other districts across the state.

Cindy Leach, transportation supervisor for Park Rapids Schools, recently returned from the Minnesota Association of Pupil Transportation conference and the statewide bus driver shortage was one of the most discussed topics.

Leach said with about 300 people in the room the question was asked, who was facing a bus driver shortage? Everyone in the room raised their hand. Leach said last year about half the hands in the room went up. It's a growing issue as districts struggle to find enough drivers.

Leach says she needs bus drivers today in Park Rapids as the district faces a shortage going into the 2017-18 school year. She has the full-time routes covered as of now but needs substitute drivers to help cover routes and run extracurricular trips. Two new routes were added this year to transport special needs children.

"I'd love to see 10 people on the sub list. I have three now, so seven new people would really help," she said.

The shortage and need are at the forefront for Leach, who says she is losing sleep over trying to get everything covered by the time school starts. For example, she said in the first week of school there are four extracurricular trips scheduled in one day.

"I don't have the people to cover the trips right now," Leach said, questioning whether they'll be able to cover all the trips with the current roster of drivers. "I've never been in that situation in 21 years."

The backup plan now is to get creative. Leach and two mechanics in the district are licensed to drive bus and there are three custodians who also have licences. They'll likely have to fill in as needed.

It's not like the district is slacking in compensation for drivers. Starting pay is $16.89/hour with full single health insurance premium paid for route drivers (12 months). There's paid sick leave and personal days with up to 12 hours of paid training after driving for 90 days.

Drivers must complete a physical and drug test, background check, commercial driving license test, behind-the-wheel training and passing a road test. If all this moves along quickly best scenario is drivers are trained and ready to go in about 30 days.

Leach says she is truly concerned because they've never been this short of drivers in her 21 years with the district.

"It's really thinking outside the box and figuring out a different way to get things done. We have to figure out how to do things different and get everything covered. It's getting to be crunch time."

Driving bus is a good job for retirees looking for part-time work but a big reason for the current shortage is not enough younger people filling the positions. Park Rapids currently has an aging group of drivers who eventually won't want to drive anymore, Leach says.

There are currently 11 drivers between the ages of 61 to 70 and 8 in the 51 to 60 age range. That's where it drops off dramatically with only one driver in the 41 to 50 age group and three in the 30 to 40 age group.

Leach said it's critical the district attracts more drivers to fill the shortage. The job is good for retirees and others with flexible hours looking for part-time work with summers off. Leach points out this is a great job for mothers who want to work and have summers off with their children. She said they'll discuss the issue more with district administrators but at this point has to consider rescheduling activities later in the day so the route drivers can fill some of the extracurricular needs. The district may also have to consider contracting with private bus companies if more drivers are not hired, which would be additional cost to the district.

Most other school districts face the same issues and Leach learned at the transportation conference she attended what is being done elsewhere. For example, in Bemidji the district had 67 days when secondary routes had to be delayed because of combining with other routes, and 45 days when an outside vendor needed to be contracted to cover transportation needs. One district in Minnesota started the year with six routes and only 2.5 drivers. That district ended up giving parents money to transport their own students to and from school.

Interested applicants to drive school bus in Park Rapids may apply online at www.parkrapids.k12.mn.us or pick up an application from the district office. For more information contact Cindy Leach at 237-6570 or email cleach@parkrapids.k12.mn.us

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