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Bus Driver Shortage Severely Impacts Districts

Pictured is an advertisement calling for Bus Drivers for Jamestown Public Schools District. P-J photo by Katrina Fuller

School districts across the area are having issues finding bus drivers, which throws a wrench in their transportation programs.

Areas districts are reporting issues finding both full-time and substitute bus drivers, with no end to the problem in sight.

Falconer Central School District Superintendent Steve Penhollow said the problem is widespread across the region and the state.

“I think we all are struggling to keep our rosters filled, “ said Penhollow. “Even though we may have the day-to-day stuff covered, sometimes with sickness or illness getting complete coverage is difficult. You try to use as many strategies as possible to fill those open spots, but I think we’re all facing similar issues, some probably worse than others based on location.”

Penhollow said there have been bus driver shortages over the past five years. He said fewer and fewer people are going into the educational field, including bus drivers. COVID-19 has not helped matters, he added. Penhollow said the shortage could be due to the calling hours of the position or the responsibilities themselves.

“It is a challenge just due to the hours of the position. You have to have a unique set of hours in order to work for a school district. You have early in the morning and you have the afternoon off, then they have to come back for the afternoon run. Sometimes, you have the nights and weekends for extracurriculars and sporting events. So you’re up early in the morning and then you come back at 2 o’clock and you’re delivering our kids home safely every day. It is challenging because of the schedule.”

Penhollow said it is a large responsibility to be in charge of 40 or so students on a bus at any given time.

“Not only are you responsible for driving a large vehicle, but you’re also responsible to get kids to and from school safely each and every day,” he said. “And, at the same time, you’re navigating the roads in public. All of these things make it a very challenging position, and not all people want that additional responsibility.”

Penhollow said the district tries to offer a competitive salary for their bus drivers, as well as benefits. He said the district also focuses on providing a supportive work environment, meeting with drivers regularly and providing well-maintained buses and vehicles to drive. For those who are interested in working with the Falconer Central Schools District, Penhollow said applicants can stop down to the Transportation Office or give them a call at 716-665-5290.

Southwestern Central School District Superintendent Maureen Donahue said her district has also had issues in these areas.

“We started the school year down two bus drivers that we’ve been advertising since June,” Donahue said. “And, we will, at the next board meeting, appoint two.”

However, she echoed Penhollow’s thoughts, saying the issue is not something that occurred just this year.

“This is not a 2021 issue, this has been percolating for a long time,” Donahue said. “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.”

However, Donahue said she isn’t just thinking about the issue for her district – but the region and state in general.

“We’ve got to take a look at this in what we’re doing regionally,” she said. “I mean, I can’t just think about Southwestern. We already share bus runs and bus routes, and we help each other out with other services like mechanic services, but it’s really serious. The lack of diesel technicians across the United States is alarming.”

Donahue said the district is currently using stimulus money to bring a full-time substitute bus driver on board to help handle situations when bus drivers are out sick. She said the district has also been training bus drivers through a bus monitor program, which allows them to get acquainted with the process. She said that is one of the ways the district is trying to backfill some positions in that area, as there is also concern with how many bus drivers that could retire in the next five years.

“I just want to say that we have tremendous drivers here at Southwestern,” Donahue said. “Not only do you have to be able to drive that bus when it’s snowing, raining or sleeting, but you’re also the first person that greets those kids in the morning. That’s a huge part of it – our drivers taken what they do very seriously and they love their kids to death that they transport. I think that side of the bus driver, people don’t always see that.”

John Spacht, Southwestern and Frewsburg Central School Districts transportation supervisor, regional representative for the New York Association for Pupil Transportation, and Chautauqua County Association for Pupil Transportation Chapter president, said the situation is dire here and across the state.

“We’re actually working with the governor’s office right now, and she just released some things the state’s trying to do over the weekend, but we’ve been working with her office all last week,” Spacht said. “It’s devastating right now. The problem is, there are a ton of hoops you have to drive through to be a bus driver. And, until recently, most of the districts were paying fairly low.”

Spacht said he is currently training a driver who is being offered a position for $14 an hour. Spacht said training to become a bus driver and get your CDL can cost upwards of $500, and the position also requires a drug test, physical and other exams, as well as an excellent driving record.

“You know, for $14 or $15 bucks an hour, you can go to Tim Hortons and pour coffee for the same money and have no responsibility,” Spacht said. “That’s probably the biggest thing. At both districts, we have elementary runs with 60 to 70 kids on the bus. That’s a lot of responsibility for somebody that there are other jobs you can get for the same money and close to the same benefits.”

However, Spacht said area districts are increasing the pay and benefits for these positions, which could be helpful. He added that while some people might be afraid to attempt the job, there is training available. While the testing in place to receive one’s permit is difficult, Spacht said the governor’s office is attempting to streamline the process to help more people qualify to become bus drivers.

“Once we get people past the permit test, we’re able to pretty much train them to drive,” he said. “It’s probably one of the best jobs out there – most people that do it never want to do anything else.”

Spacht said for candidates who are interested in working for the Frewsburg district as a drive can call 716-569-7035 to inquire. For those interested in working for the Southwestern district, he advised calling 716-763-8391. As for candidates in other districts, he suggested calling your local district or visiting their website for an application.

“I would almost guarantee they’re going to get a call back because I don’t know any school districts right now that aren’t looking for at least a couple of drivers,” he said. “Everybody’s short right now. It’s so bad that eventually, somebody is going to tell a group of kids you have to wait until the bus can come back out and get that group because there aren’t going to be enough buses to bring everybody in at once. We haven’t gotten there yet – but there’s just not enough people.”

Over the weekend, Gov. Kathy Hochul announces a multi-agency plan to address the driver shortage, which will remove barriers and recruit traditional and non-traditional CDL license holders. The plan will also expand CDL testing opportunities and enhance the necessary process to expedite getting drivers into school districts to drive. The state is also reaching out to more than 550,000 CDL license holders in the state.

“Our schools and public health officials have moved mountains to ensure our children receive an in-person education this year, and we are leaving no stone unturned to make sure schools have adequate bus service to bring students to school and back,” Governor Hochul said. “While the shortage of school bus drivers is not unique to New York State, I have directed state agencies to utilize creative approaches and use every tool at their disposal to help districts affected by the bus driver shortage, so we can bring in as many qualified bus drivers as possible as quickly as possible.”

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