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Busing Dilemma May Prompt Different Route

Editor's Corner

Here’s a sign of need for school bus drivers in the Jamestown Public Schools. P-J photo by Katrina Fuller

Superintendent Charles Leichner, through a Facebook post, shared with parents and district residents on Sunday evening some news that was a bit of an inconvenience for some. Cassadaga Valley Central Schools would be unable to transport students on three routes Monday for classes due to “an unexpected bus driver shortage.”

Leichner’s school is far from alone. A visit to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services website finds job listings for bus drivers in 11 districts in Western New York.

Educational institutions are struggling like many other locations to find candidates who want to work. The tourism and restaurant industry across the state, in some cases, has had to reduce hours of operations or services to deal with fewer applicants and employees. Major north-county industries, such as Wells Ice Cream in Dunkirk, are having trouble keeping three shifts going.

For years, Chautauqua County heard a familiar tune during the election season. Bring us more jobs and the population will begin to see an increase.

That, however, is not a reality at this time. In fact, the lack of candidates has trickled down to one of this region’s largest employers: public school districts.

No matter how small, educational institutions are a big deal in every community due to the jobs that come with the importance of learning as well as the upkeep of facilities. It is one reasons school merger fail.

There are enough residents and neighbors who have ties to these positions that could possibly be eliminated when multiple districts decide to become one. On fear factor alone, those individuals are going to vote no.

What happened at Cassadaga Valley, however, could very well happen again. In fact, the district put out a note that another route could be down as of today.

Those scrambles are being seen on a national level as well.

“This is not a 2021 issue, this has been percolating for a long time,” Southwestern Central Schools Superintendent Maureen Donahue said in a recent article in The Post-Journal. “It’s not just rural areas — it’s across the state and across the nation, and in what I would call the transportation industry. You can’t find CDL drivers for trucks, you have a hard time finding bus drivers, and finding diesel mechanics and finding people in that field is very difficult. This year, because it’s really hit getting kids back to school full time, it’s a serious issue. You have to take a look at the entire industry top to bottom, (and) how we train drivers — we don’t have a lot of people that do that. People have been having a hard time finding CDL instructors.”

Some schools, however, have been getting out of the busing business. In August, the Rome Central School District in Central New York announced it was entering into an agreement with First Student for its population to begin riding new, state-of-the-art buses.

First Student officials said it replaced the district’s entire fleet of 73 buses with models that included the latest technology, including GPS tracking systems and driver tablets. The tablets provide advanced views of bus routes and turn-by-turn directions, as well as real-time traffic updates.

Fredonia Central Schools have used First Student for years to provide transportation, which saves some money in the long run. For Fredonia, that means no school bus garage to maintain as well as no need to purchase new vehicles. Additionally, there are no district employees who drive buses, which saves not only on salaries, but on benefits and legacy costs that come from state pensions.

In its 2021-22 budget, Fredonia noted transportation costs of around $1.3 million, which is less than the $2.1 million it costs Jamestown Public Schools, which has its own fleet. Even smaller schools, such as Cassadaga Valley, see a chunk of their budgets tied to transportation. This year, that amount for Cassadaga Valley was $1.2 million — or about 5% of its total nearly $25 million spending plan.

Overall, First Student says it is the largest operator of school buses in the state. The company has more than 50 locations with about 4,000 of its employees managing approximately 3,800 bus routes and a fleet of nearly 4,200 vehicles.

With the hiring crisis creating turmoil, would other local districts consider this option? Right now, that’s a tough sell.

School districts can be their own worst enemy as many have done capital projects and expansions that were never needed with shrinking enrollments. In addition, residents in many of these districts always approve the purchase of new buses during annual school-budget elections without a peep of opposition.

There are savings — and less hassle — in having an outside vendor handle transportation for area districts. The big question is, just like with unpopular merger proposals, will residents and board members see the benefit?

Judging from recent budget votes, which have not been defeated, increasing costs are never an issue when it comes to education. Potential driver shortages that lead to problems this winter with rural bus routes? That may stir the pot.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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