As students adjust to waking up for their early morning trips to school, a full supply of bus drivers is needed to help make those trips possible.
But according to David Bowlin, director of field services and student transportation for the Ohio Department of Education, a shortage of drivers extends not just across Ohio, but nationwide.
“Given that there is a shortage, if you take a bus driver, instead of going to seven bus stops, he goes to 14 now – those extras are usually picked up by someone else “, explained Bowlin. If you have a bigger district with 600 drivers and you lose 80, it’s the same thing.
He added, “There are districts reporting daily that they are short-term drivers and replacement drivers for the upcoming school year. It doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. »
Some Mahoning Valley schools are coping with the shortage by making adjustments.
As an example, the local Boardman School District held Continuing Education last week, one of several hour-long instructional classes scheduled to meet the state’s four-hour requirement. But Boardman has added an additional four hours to ensure its drivers are fully acclimated to the rules and regulations.
Boardman trains in-house with onboarding instructors who run courses to get drivers their business license as well as the necessary bus and passenger endorsements. The process takes about two months depending on the drivers’ schedules.
Nearly a full crew of bus drivers, some of whom have worked at Boardman Schools for more than 20 years, attended the hearing to hear from state troopers and transportation district supervisor Nick Deniakis.
“We have about 50 contracted routes, so we have 50 bus drivers and six bus assistants to accommodate special needs buses that travel throughout the district,” Deniakis said.
The Boardman neighborhood spans 25 miles. Deniakis said he had enough to cover the roads.
Boardman offers “dual contracts” to attract drivers who are concerned about not working enough hours. These contracts allow bus drivers to work in other areas, such as the cafeteria, during driving downtime.
“That way they work a full eight-hour day to get housing and pay their bills,” Deniakis said.
The process seems to be working as almost all of the drivers have taken the on-the-job training.
“We were lucky to operate like a well-oiled machine,” Deniakis said.
Some school districts, however, aren’t doing as well at getting certified drivers.
The Ohio Department of Education requires pre-certification which can take four to five days. These certifications are valid for six years.
Poland’s local school district faces an uphill battle ahead of the 2022-23 school year: A shortage has left it with just 16 drivers for 20 routes, according to district superintendent Craig Hockenberry. This figure is six or seven under the necessary number.
“We fought it. We started before the shortage. We had over 20 drivers, but around COVID-19 (the pandemic), we started losing drivers. We went from 20 to 18,” Hockenberry said.
The shortage won’t end anytime soon, as the Poland district will lose six more drivers to retirement in January.
Searching for solutions, Hockenberry said the district used several methods. One was the addition of “cluster stops”.
These group stops allow the district to group children who are normally on a different bus route to a central route within a 1.5-mile walk, the furthest allowed by state law.
Hockenberry said he hopes the changes will allay parents’ concerns.
“Parents are frustrated because they have to go to work in the morning. Children come home late in the afternoon, which affects their ability to do sports or other activities,” he said.
He described this as a trickle-down effect of scarcity.
Like other schools, Poland is also burdened with the process of obtaining CDL drivers, citing that the process can take months.
Hockenberry said he has been in touch with state lawmakers to speed up the process by eliminating the requirement for drivers to learn the mechanical aspects of the bus.
“Our bus drivers will not do any mechanical work on these buses,” Hockenberry said.
He maintains that this is something they would delegate to the district bus mechanics. By removing this barrier, he said, it would prevent drivers from dropping out of the process altogether due to the time it takes to complete the training.
The Poland district also has the advantage of being one of the districts able to integrate with in-house instructors.
Poland offers paid training, benefits, a competitive salary and pays for background checks to help attract drivers, the superintendent noted.
Traci Hostetler, superintendent of the Eastern Ohio Educational Services Center at Canfield, said, “We compete with private industries for drivers, and often the determination is a few thousand dollars a year. What candidates don’t realize is that the average bus driver works less than 190 days a year, so they have time to earn extra income during the summer and holidays if needed.
“Additionally, many districts offer a rich benefits package as well as retirement contributions, which are hard to find in the private sector. In the long run, these are huge game changers.”
Michael Hanshaw, superintendent of the Trumbull County Educational Services Center, said most schools don’t have the capacity to offer instructor-led courses for drivers to get pre-certified.
The TCESC runs pre-employment certification courses taught by ODE instructors, and Hanshaw said it has increased the number of courses to meet driver demand.
To meet the demand for drivers, schools in the city of Warren have developed a relationship with the private company Community Bus Service to help staff its routes. The partnership has been in place for years as the shortage of bus drivers is a recurring problem.
For the upcoming school year, Warren City Schools Operations Manager John Lacy said the district has 22 routes based on ridership. These routes are complemented by 15 Warren bus drivers as well as seven CBS alternates.
“We use the community bus service for full training and testing, and we as a school district pay for the training,” Lacy said. “It used to cost (drivers) several hundred dollars and now, with the shortage, we’ve been able to supplement that cost.”
This has been a significant factor as drivers have become harder to find for several reasons including lack of ability to pay for training and competition with other employers.
“It was difficult to get them because of other job opportunities. We’ve lost a few drivers to other job opportunities like at the new battery plant in Lordstown,” Lacy said.
To address the issues with fee-paying drivers, Warren Schools has taken several initiatives, including increasing pay to $21 per hour with benefits included.
Lacy said the school district also emphasizes the importance of creating a good environment for drivers by placing teacher aides on routes to help them when needed.
To help bring in good hours, schools in the city of Warren have also adopted “dual contracts” that allow drivers to work between routes in areas such as maintenance or the cafeteria. Drivers are also offered year-round employment in schools.
“We work 52 weeks – full-time, year-round employees,” Lacy said. “They continue to do summer programs, help with summer feeding sites and get the buses ready for the fall.”