Bus driver shortage causes local school districts to scramble

Area officials commented this week on the challenges facing their fleets.

close up of a school bus stop sign on the side of a bus
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Local school officials shared their points of view about their districts’ need for additional bus drivers and substitute drivers.

Nevis School juggling routes

“Nevis is experiencing some of the same bus driver shortages as many of our fellow school districts,” Superintendent Gregg Parks said. “Our current crew has gone above and beyond daily to juggle routes, trips and sub-drivers to keep our buses on the road.”

Parks said that, due to the shortages, the district has had to develop a model which relies on a week-to-week analysis of the fleet, available drivers and other transportation needs.

“We have just enough drivers to cover our daily routes, but we run into problems when we have multiple activity trips on the same day,” he said. “Our transportation coordinator has become a master at juggling the routes and activities by using every resource we have available. We have not yet had to combine routes to meet our needs, but I feel it is only a matter of time. We currently are investing in training new bus drivers while relying on some of our teaching staff and retired drivers.

Parks said the district is always looking for substitute route and activity bus drivers.


“I would like to thank our parents and our kids for their patience, flexibility, and understanding,” he said. “It is great to see our community supporting our school when we need it the most.”

Challenges for recruitment in Park Rapids
David Synstegaard, director of transportation for Park Rapids Area Schools, shared his take on the looming driver shortage.

“We don’t have enough substitute drivers to fill in for when a driver either calls in sick, takes a vacation day or when sporting events come up,” he said. “If I don't have subs for that, the alternative is either we don't go or they hire a coach bus to do that trip. That costs a lot more because you're getting short notice.”

He said it gets especially challenging to find enough drivers when there are three or four extracurricular events in one day.

Synstegaard said the challenges involved in recruiting bus drivers include the requirement of a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

“This isn't a full-time job,” he said. “So, you've got a CDL. Are you going to work a couple hours making $X an hour or are you going to use that CDL to drive a truck and make some pretty good money?

“The second thing we're seeing is, the model that we used to have to fill (driver positions) is outdated. It used to be resorters or farmers that did this for the health benefits. Now, what we're seeing is, that demographic is getting smaller, and the demographic that comes up, they're just not interested.”

He reflected that many resorts have been converted to planned unit developments, while family farms are giving way to bigger, consolidated farms. The remaining drivers in that demographic are getting close to retirement and “people that retire, retire.”


Thirdly, Synstegaard said, there’s the “myth of the school bus,” that the students are wild and crazy. “That's not true,” he said, “because the drivers set the tone for the school buses. At the end of the day, people are looking for a living wage, and the hours of a school bus driver just doesn't do it. So most of those people are in it for the benefits, healthcare specifically.”

Possible ways out of this tight corner include hiring “Type 3” drivers, who can drive a vehicle that carries 10 passengers or less; this doesn’t require a CDL. However, compared to buses that may hold 50-70 students, this would require more people.

Another option, he said, is to look at the in-town routes, where the school is only required to transport students living outside a two-mile trip from the school. “I probably have about 4 to 5 buses worth of kids that we pick up, kids in town within two miles,” he said. “What happens if we have only 18 drivers? In-town routes may be impacted.”

As for events, meanwhile, “they're going to have to figure out ways to get kids to basketball, hockey, all that,” he said.

The idea of getting coaches licensed to drive their athletes to events is all right on paper, but Synstegaard noted, they would have to step up and get the license, which isn’t as easy as it used to be. Also, they would have to work out an arrangement with the unionized drivers.

“It's a nasty little cycle we're in,” he said. “But look around town. There's job postings everywhere. ... It's going to get worse before it gets better.

“Our drivers, they're not young, and as they get older, and as they become retirement age and health concerns start creeping in, they may not want to do this forever. We're fortunate to be where we're at, but it's not going to continue.”

Menahga only needs one or two

Menahga School District’s transportation supervisor, Christina Albin, reports, “Currently, we are very fortunate that our routes are being covered. We could use another driver or two, but we believe this is attributed to the fact that our drivers are pretty well paid.”



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