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School bus drivers wanted

Cindy Leach, Park Rapids transportation director, is concerned not enough younger people are coming forward to fill the bus driver schedule needs of the district.. (Kevin Cederstrom / Enterprise)

By Jean Ruzicka

The big orange limos transporting students to and from school are in need of drivers.

Cindy Leach, Park Rapids transportation director, reports the district is once again facing a “severe bus driver shortage.”

An aging bus driver population and tougher licensing requirements on the federal level are contributing to the shortage, she said.

“Driver age groups have changed significantly,” she said. “Ten years ago, I had 11 drivers under the age of 55. Today I have four. Young people are not coming in to drive the bus.

“I’d like to have 10 subs; we have four. I have hired only one new substitute this entire year,” she reports.

And older drivers are reluctant to get behind the wheel for nighttime travel - “safety the aspect.” Each year, students embark on about 450 co-curricular and field trips, requiring extra time behind the wheel.

Over 1,000 students board buses morning and afternoon, their “chauffeurs” heading out on 21 routes. All told, the Park Rapids school buses cover 3,000 miles each day. About half the routes have kids boarding at 6:30 a.m.

“I don’t see young people stepping up,” she said of drivers.

The shortage is not just local; it’s nationwide. “Farm communities have better luck, as do college towns,” Leach said of flexible schedules.

Many of the Park Rapids area school bus drivers are self-employed, health care coverage a draw. “We used to get resort owners,” she said of the four or five drivers, on average. “Now we have none.”

Bus drivers’ starting wage is $16.04 per hour, $11.33 for field trips. A key requirement: “Someone who likes kids.”

“I have a wonderful group,” Leach said of her drivers. “The best group in my 18 years,” she said of her tenure as transportation director. “They like kids. They like what they’re doing. But I need more.”

Leach said she and school officials have bandied ideas as to ways to approach this, possibly recruiting teachers and coaches. But bus driving should be done consistently to “be safe and stay up on skills.”

And each bus differs slightly, she said of acclimating to a vehicle.

Bus drivers undergo four written tests, requiring pre-study. Candidates must have a clean driving record, pass a physical and are subject to drug and alcohol tests, prior to employment and randomly afterward.

Candidates undergo 12 hours behind-the-wheel training and a driving test conducted by a commercial vehicle licensing official.

Cameras have now been installed in half the district buses, soon to be in all the vehicles.

“I was not completely sold, initially. I am now,” she said of the tool allowing drivers to concentrate on the road, not the little rapscallion mid-bus.

Drivers also expressed “big brother watching” trepidation, which was soon dispelled. “Now the ones without wish they had them.”

If a driver suspects mischief, Leach views the video. She may approach the student him/herself, as well as the principal and teacher. Although parents can’t view the due to data privacy, the incident can be confirmed. Sometimes parents ask Leach to view the videos if they surmise their child is being harassed.

“It’s an excellent, excellent tool,” Leach said of drivers warning ‘Cindy’s going to watch this.’ It stops incidents from happening.”

Come holidays, the end of school there’s a round of gifts and notes exchanged.

“They are their kids,” she said. “They bond, they confide. This is a trusted person to the child.

“We have a lot of fun here,” she said of drivers sharing kids’ wit and wisdom.

“It’s a fun job.”