Driver shortage impacts school transportation

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The growing problem of a shortage of school bus drivers threatens the transportation programs of many rural Iowa schools, including Cherokee and surrounding districts.

Among the many reasons for this job pool drain are:

• Cumbersome state and/or federal restrictions and mandatory testing on-line and face-to-face chasing some applicants away, including retirees who may not be well-versed in computer technology.

• The declining number of farmers who once supplemented their incomes by full- or part-time bus driving. Labor pool unreliable during planting/harvest seasons. High commodity prices and other farm revenue sources contributing to dwindling farmer labor pool.

• Inclement Iowa weather that can make rural traveling threatening and treacherous.

• As the trend continues of neighboring districts merging because of declining rural enrollments, bus routes become lengthier and/or more frequent.

• Mandatory random drug testing and passing a physical exam.

• On-board student discipline problems.

• Long, late hours for out-of-town after-school activities.

Area school superintendents and transportation directors who were contacted all agree that a driver shortage is very real, and is causing some districts to pay to charter buses for after-school activities such as ball games, track and field meets, musical competitions, field trips, etc.

Drivers’ wages have escalated the past few years in an effort to recruit more drivers, with an average full-time driver earning an estimated $16,000 per year, and hourly rates for part-time drivers estimated between $12-$15.

The Cherokee District currently pays an estimated $90 per day for both a morning and afternoon route, with each route averaging about 90 minutes, totaling a three-hour day for full-time drivers. In addition, drivers who bus students to after-school or out-of-school activities are paid $13.25 per hour, including time spent in the bleachers during the activity waiting for the return trip home.

At first glance, becoming certified to drive a school bus may appear daunting for many. Bus driver applicants must: Have a valid DL and CDL; take a 17-hour online course after which they are then tested and expected to earn a passing score; undergo a three-hour face-to-face test with an instructor; pass four written endorsements, including Passenger endorsement, School Bus endorsement, Air Brake endorsement, and Class B endorsement (based on weight - semi drivers need a Class A endorsement).

The written endorsements are conducted at the DL Station in the Treasurer’s Office at the county courthouse.

A bus inspection must then occur with a transportation instructor where applicants must identify various parts and equipment on the bus.

These are all one-time, up-front requirements, with just the three-hour face-to-face testing done annually to keep one’s license renewed. If one fails to take the three-hour face-to-face testing, their certification expires and they must then re-take all the tests.

There also is a proliferation of school districts with a budgeting strategy of buying large SUVs or passenger vans which can haul nine students and can be driven with a valid DL for smaller group events. Drivers of these vehicles can be faculty, coaches, administrators, or parents. Sharing substitute drivers with another district on an as-needed basis is also an option more districts are taking.

One superintendent admitted he was considering getting certified as a bus driver himself to help out in times of need.

“We’ve advertised for drivers and get little response, or they can’t pass the testing to be certified. On top of that, our driver force is steadily aging and we’re beginning to see retirements and are not able to replace them,” said an area superintendent.

Another pointed out that their list of substitute drivers is dwindling, and that the subs aren’t always available when called. He also pointed out that defining a whole-grade sharing agreement presents another transportation dilemma.

“We need to tell them over and over how much they’re appreciated, how valuable they are to all of us, and that we need more of them,” offered one superintendent. “After all, they are in charge of our most valuable possession - our children. And that’s one great responsibility.”

Area superintendents urge interested adults to contact their Central Offices for information for applying to become a school bus driver.