Tri-state area school districts face bus driver shortage

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

FARLEY — The wheels on the bus might go round and round, but the reality for many districts in the tri-state area is that there is a significant need for the drivers of those buses.

The dearth of school bus drivers arguably is felt most greatly in large districts that have expansive geographic areas to cover; districts like Western Dubuque Community Schools.

Western Dubuque’s district spans 555 square miles, making it the largest in terms of geographic area in the state. The district has 55 bus routes with 75 part- and full-time drivers.

Bob Hingtgen, the district’s maintenance and transportation director, said that while the district is trying to be as flexible as possible to encourage applicants, they still struggle to retain drivers.

“It’s a big struggle trying to keep drivers,” he said. “We have drivers just in the morning or in the afternoon route to fit their schedule to accommodate them. But we would love to have another 10 subs on our list. But I don’t see that happening right away.”

The situation has become so dire that some area districts are relying on bus mechanics, custodians and other school employees to make do, the Telegraph Herald reported.

“We have teachers, cooks who drive after their kitchen shifts and maintenance staff who are certified to drive,” Hingtgen said. “And we use them frequently. We even have an ex-superintendent who would sub drive for us.”

Officials from the Dubuque Community School District said they can empathize with Western Dubuque.

“Our mechanics are constantly driving to fill in, and those in our transport office are driving too,” said Phil Kramer, the district’s executive director of human resources. “Even our transportation director might. It’s all-hands-on-deck and we’re still having some struggles.”

Causes for the shortage include low unemployment in the strong economy; the extra certification and training needed to become a bus driver; the unique hours; and, in some instances, a lack of insurance or benefits.

In order to drive a school bus in the state of Iowa, a driver needs to have a commercial driver’s license, must pass a physical examination and complete additional online training through the state Department of Education to obtain a school bus driving endorsement.

Hingtgen said that though the district reimburses drivers for the certification, training fees and physical, it can be “too many hoops to jump through” for some applicants.

“I think a lot of people also get scared off by the idea of the big yellow bus and driving a bunch of kids,” he said. “But once they get in here, it’s very rewarding and not as daunting as it looks. We just have to get them in here.”

Phyllis Errthum, of Bankston, Iowa, has been driving buses for Western Dubuque for 35 years. She said what she does is a calling.

“It’s not ever something I’d thought I’d do, but I love it,” she said. “I’m very blessed and I have very good students. I always tell them it’s all about their safety.”

She drives a 77-passenger bus in the northern part of the district and said that the work is “perfect” for her.

“I can drive my bus in the morning and then do what I want to do during the day and then come back in the afternoon,” she said. “For me, the hours were appealing.”

Southwestern Wisconsin School District Superintendent John Costello said that for most applicants, the unique timing of bus driving is likely another factor for the driver shortage.

“If a driver has a route, they have to be accessible in the morning and or in the afternoon,” Costello said. “So for them to be able to do something consistently day in and day out can be difficult to plan around. So I think that’s a contributing factor.”

Pay for full-time drivers in Western Dubuque starts at $16.83 per hour, with part-time pay starting at $16.68 per hour. Some districts have started to offer signing bonuses for drivers, something that Western Dubuque might have to consider, Superintendent Rick Colpitts said.

“Everybody who works here has some benefits based on the number of hours they work through IPERS (Iowa Public Employees’ Retirement System) and they would accumulate personal and sick leave like everyone else,” he said.

However, for Errthum, the real perks of bus driving come from the relationships she forms with her riders.

“I’ve had kids that rode my bus and now their kids ride my bus,” she said. “They’ll come back and say, ‘Oh, Phyllis, you were the best driver,’ and it shows that what you did make an impact on their lives. That’s probably the best part.”