Struggle bus: districts trying to fill driver seats

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Capital News Service

LANSING – School districts across the state are continuing the search for bus drivers to fill critical positions. 

Katrina Morris, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation, said there’s been a shortage for a while, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it worse. 

The Okemos-based organization that promotes education and safety standards for school bus drivers. 

The public’s view of school bus drivers has deterred many people from applying, Morris said.

“You have 60 to 70 kids sitting behind one person. The perception is that anybody can do the job, and they really can’t,” she said.

“Drivers have to go through a lot of training. They go through drug screenings. They have continued education that they have to do every year,” she said. “It does take a specific person to be a bus driver.”

The hours and work conditions also put many people off from the job, Morris said. Most drivers work in split shifts, driving in the morning, going home and coming back in the afternoon.

“They drive a 40-foot vehicle through all types of weather conditions while being a mentor to some students, while being a referee, being a medic,” she said.

“They also have to deal with other drivers,” she said.

Districts are trying to make the work more appealing, and better pay, benefits and hours have started to yield new applicants, according to Morris. 

Recognition for drivers who are already employed has also had a positive impact.

“We’ve had the Detroit Pistons work with us last year, and they are doing it again this year for a school bus driver appreciation game,” Morris said. “We’re bringing awareness, but it’s also bringing that appreciation back to thanking those drivers.”

Karlene Rader, the supervisor of the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District’s transportation department, now has a full staff of drivers. She said having a good team is how they thrive.

The district covers the Big Rapids, Chippewa Hills, Crossroads, Evart, Morley Stanwood and Reed City school districts. Its routes cover over 1,100 square miles. 

“We are a transportation family, we help each other, we support each other,” she said. 

Drivers work a lot of hours. And I had to eliminate two routes because we didn’t have applicants,” she said.

Morris said some superintendents are now licensed to drive buses to help with lack of drivers. 

Districts also have looked at changing end-of-day times so drives can drop off some children and come back to pick up more.

Beyond the training requirements, Rader said ental requirements are also important.

“You have to have a state of mind where you sincerely care about the well-being of your students. It’s a lifestyle. You gotta love it to do it well and my people do,” she said.

Steve Locke, the superintendent of the Mecosta-Osceola ISD, said the district’s staffing success is due to the team it has and the benefits it offers.

“All drivers are offered the same benefits as full-time employees, including retirement and full family health insurance,” he said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation in July giving $125 million in state aid for school transportation funding. The money can be used for school district bus fuel and maintenance.

Morris said that in the past school transportation costs have been taken from per-pupil aid.

“Transportation departments have never been reimbursed. That money has always come out of the general fund,” Morris said. “We are in a better spot to be able to offer more to our drivers.”

Morris said she is optimistic that the situation is getting better.

“It is one of the most rewarding jobs that you’ll ever have. And it doesn’t come from the paycheck. It comes from seeing the kids and from building those relationships,” she said.

“It comes down to what is best for the child,” she said. “When you look at how many kids would not be able to attend school if that black-and-yellow school bus was not coming to pick them up, it would be catastrophic to our children. We don’t have an option to fail.”

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