Crowded school buses highlight driver Shortage facing District, worse this year

“We just do the best we can to get kids home in a safe manner as quickly as possible,” said Snoqualmie Valley Transportation Manager Karen Lewis.

Lewis started driving a district bus in 1990. For her the job was perfect. She was home when her kids were on school breaks and summer vacation. The job also offered flexibility to drive her kids’ bus routes – and bring her child to work in the morning. Many others took the job for the same reason.

16 years later Karen says part-time bus driving positions just aren’t attracting parent applicants – parents who used to becamesvsd-bus longterm drivers. And with lots of recent retirements and job turnover, the lack of drivers has become very evident in the Snoqualmie Valley.

When asked if the implementation of full day kindergarten, and less driver hours, led to the driver shortage, SVSD Transportation Direct Jim Garhart said that it’s hard to pinpoint one specific reason, and thinks a number of factors may be contributing. He explained districts across Washington are facing the same challenge, as are charter school bus companies.

SVSD has faced a bus driver shortage for a number of years – so dealing with the situation is not a new challenge. This year, though, it’s worse. Transportation office staff, including Director Garhart and Manager Karen Lewis, along with the department’s dispatch operator, are all pitching in and regularly driving bus routes.

In total the district employs approximately 47 drivers and 5 substitutes. Over the summer SVSD saw its largest class of new bus drivers – with nine new trainees. Unfortunately that did not outnumber the drivers who left due to retirement or for other reasons.

Those 47 regular bus drivers are responsible for 38 full-size bus routes and 11 small bus routes that cover all elementary, middle and high schools in the geographically expansive district  – plus the district’s STREAM, preschool and special needs programs which have been growing rapidly over the past few years.

After school activities and out-of-district transportation (field trips, etc) are currently being covered by contract bus services, but because other districts also rely on contract busing companies, which are also struggling to hire drivers, even contract companies are stretched thin.

How many more drivers does SVSD need to fix the situation?

The district said they ideally want to hire another 15-20 drivers to cover routes and trip requests – both regular part-time and substitute drivers are needed.

The district has been actively advertising the positions, especially with local parents who might want a flexible, local, part-time job that offers a similar schedule to their child.

The district is stressing  the flexibility aspect of the job. Some drivers work just the morning routes, others the afternoon routes. Some prefer to do substitute work. Pay starts around $20/hour.

When asked if the district is considering increasing pay to attract more drivers, it said contract negotiations with the Public School Employees (PSE) Union which represents drivers begins later this year and “compensation is always an important discussion during negotiations.”

Students, Parents noticing ‘Lack of Drivers’ Effects

In the meantime, some students seem to be feeling the space pinch. The Transportation Department says it is working diligently to meet busing needs with its current staffing, but in some cases smaller routes had to be consolidated and shuttles have been utilized between schools for some programs.

The topic of crowded buses has been discussed on social media quite a bit during the first month of school, with photos posted of kids sitting in school bus aisles.

How many students does a bus hold and are they monitored?

According to the district, drivers count the number of students that enter their buses to ensure the number complies with the occupancy rate of each school bus. Large buses have an 84 student capacity and accommodate up to three students per seat. The district says when possible, transportation tries to keep that number lower for middle and high school students since they are bigger in size.

Transportation Manager Karen Lewis said they’ve made adjustments to some routes this year, as they didn’t know exactly how many kids would show up until the school year started.

She said on route 26, which has experienced crowding, some stops were removed and switched to a less crowded route. She explained that transportation is now working with families whose stops were changed to ensure they are actually riding the new bus – not continuing on route 26 and getting off at a different stop.

Lewis said after working to adjust routes during the first month of school, most routes now have ridership numbers in the 50’s and 60’s. She estimated that some more crowded routes require about 6-8 bus seats to be occupied by three students.

If a bus does push past its capacity the driver has to request back up support before departing, which typically involves another on-site bus route assisting, but sometimes a bus from a different location has to respond.

This happened to a middle school route on one of the first Fridays of the school year. (Fridays are the trickiest days for transportation – especially at middle schools due to students not having after school activities.) The district said the following Friday, in anticipation of more students, it had an additional bus ready to help with that route.

So what about kids sitting in the aisles of buses?

The district said it is aware of the photos showing kids in bus aisles. One photo was from Friday, September 16th on bus route 26 traveling from Chief Kanim MS to Snoqualmie – a bus that was initially over its 84 student capacity. According to the district, ten students were moved to a different route before that bus left the school.

This week another photo was shared. In this case the district said it verified with the driver that 68 middle school students boarded that bus – under its maximum capacity.   The driver said he was aware that some students were goofing around and sitting on the floor while the bus was parked, but that he made sure everyone was seated before departing.

The next day Transportation Director Garhart decided to ride this route, talking to kids at the back of the bus about why it is important stay in the seats.

At the next driver training, Garhart will also be emphasizing the issue with drivers – and that drivers make every effort to ensure students are seated, especially if visibility to the back of the bus is obscured, which can happen when students are socializing in the aisles and carrying lots of backpacks.

The district said it also followed up with the parent of the student who took the photo – and said appreciates hearing directly from parents who have a concern to report as it allows the department to look into specific facts and work to find solutions if needed.

Looking for Solutions

When asked if the short Deer Park bus route or STREAM program busing might temporarily cease or be altered to deal with the driver shortage, the district said no, these routes are currently being covered by transportation office staff and substitute drivers, but that school walk zones might have to be reassessed in the future.

Ultimately the district says it needs to hire more drivers. And it’s trying – even creating a  hiring video that promotes the job’s flexibility for community members. In addition to a starting salary of $19.74, training costs are covered by the district, as well as up to $425 the required Commercial Drivers License (CDL) cost. Benefits are available at 17.5 hours per week or when assigned a route.

Anyone interested in applying can visit SVSD Job Opportunities online – the position  is listed as Substitute Bus Driver (all new drivers start as subs until they have the necessary training/experience). SVSD Transportation is also considering holding an October class for new hires if there is enough interest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Actually, on route 26, there were 4 students to a seat. I also believe students were in the aisle. I do not believe these are accurate statements in this article. The bus driver knows she cannot be driving with students in the aisle!

  2. http://Jerry says

    A bus driver’s lot is not a happy one….

  3. To those who need the bus bless you. To the parents who work and can’t be there same. To the rest of you who are either there and or your kids can walk, hey how about quit wasting resources on that. It’s a never ending cycle of stupid!

Speak Your Mind

*

%d bloggers like this: