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Who’s Driving the Bus? Urban Districts Work to Combat Bus Driver Shortage

  • Mark Bedell has worn many hats over the course of his career – teacher, assistant principal, principal, school improvement officer, assistant superintendent, and superintendent of Missouri’s Kansas City Public Schools since 2016.

    Now, at least temporarily, he has added one more: school bus driver.

    Every morning for the past three weeks, Bedell has been picking up a student in a district van and driving them to school, then beginning his day job overseeing the 14,000-student school system. 

    As the school year opened, the district’s bus provider, Student Transportation of America, lost drivers, impacting 250 families along 17 routes. 

    Kansas City is not alone in its search for more bus drivers. According to a national survey conducted by three student transportation organizations, 51 percent of respondents described their driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate.”

    Oregon’s Portland Public Schools is dealing with a shortage of bus drivers and attributes the shortage to factors including:

    • drivers not returning after being furloughed when schools were closed during the pandemic;
    • many drivers (who all work part-time) being retirees more vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19; and
    • hesitancy among some to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, which is required for all school employees by both the district and the state.

    The district is working on a number of solutions, including discussions at the state level for additional supports, maximizing use of smaller vehicles and carpooling services and, contracting with external service providers.

    Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools is dealing with a bus driver shortage by switching from school buses to public transit at the high school level, issuing free passes to students.

    “This is a workforce crisis we are seeing here in Saint Paul, throughout Minnesota and across the country,” St. Paul Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said in a press release.

    Reimbursing Those Who Provide Their Own Transportation

    The shortage of bus drivers in Minneapolis Public Schools spurred Superintendent Ed Graff to work toward obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL) so he can drive a school bus. Meanwhile, the district hopes to address the driver shortage by offering transportation reimbursements to families who can transport their children themselves.

    The nation’s third largest school district, Chicago Public Schools, is offering transportation stipends of $1,000 for the first two weeks, and $500 the following months for students without transportation.

    Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh Public Schools is also offering to reimburse families. Under its new release your seat campaign, mileage reimbursement will be given to eligible families who drive their child to and from school.

    And the School District of Philadelphia launched a program to provide a $300 monthly payment (up to $3,000 total) per household for the 2021-22 school year to eligible parents able to drive their kids to school.

    Offering Better Pay

    According to a national survey on bus driver shortages, 50 percent of respondents cited the rate of pay as a major factor affecting their ability to successfully recruit and retain drivers. Realizing that, big-city school districts are offering cash incentives and increased wages for bus drivers. 

    Minneapolis Public Schools is offering a $3,000 hiring bonus for bus drivers while Virginia’s Richmond Public Schools is offering a $4,000 retention bonus for current bus drivers and a $4,000 signing bonus for new hires with a CDL. New hires without a CDL will receive $2,000.

    The board of education for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., approved a $5,000 stipend for bus drivers and voted to boost hourly pay for certified teachers and classified staff who drive buses.

    Boston Public Schools is offering bus drivers $26.65 an hour plus benefits and at a press conference before the first day of school Superintendent Brenda Cassellius urged people to apply. However, the district recently shared some good news regarding its bus driver situation. According to district officials, on the first day of school, 85 percent of buses arrived within 15 minutes of the bell time and 96 percent arrived within 30 minutes of the bell time.

    Turning to the Military

    Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite recently made a request to the Pennsylvania governor to deploy the National Guard to serve as bus drivers. He said that guard members with a CDL license may be able to drive vans to transport children, according to KYW Newsradio

    District officials in New York’s Buffalo Public Schools recently participated in meetings with the staff of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to explore the deployment of National Guard members as bus drivers.

    While everyone is talking about bus drivers being in short supply, a school in Buffalo recently lauded those who are on the job. Faculty and staff at the Native American Magnet School #19 donated money for gift cards and wrote personal notes for the drivers.

    “Our bus drivers are doing a great job and we appreciate them,” said Principal Michael Suwala. “We wanted to make sure that the drivers we currently have know that they are appreciated.”