Union pumps the brakes on bus driver shortage while still looking to hire
Substitute drivers fill the gaps
DYSART – While the wheels on Union’s buses will continue to go ’round and round’ this new school year as always, the district is still confronting a stubborn scarcity of drivers to operate those wheels – only pumping the brakes on the shortage with the help of subs.
Last Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. on the dot, two yellow school buses pulled up in front of D-G Elementary, and for a brief moment all was calm.
Then, like clockwork, the bus doors whooshed open and chittering students began filing out from the building to begin the first leg of their journeys home.
What most of the young riders that day were probably blissfully unaware of was how close their school district came this past summer to a transportation disaster due to its lack of drivers.
“The shortages are due to a number of things,” John Mix, Union’s Building, Grounds, and Transportation Director, told the Telegraph via email last Friday as the district wrapped up Day 3 of the 2023-24 school year.
“We had two [full time] drivers retire … two resignations due to finding a new job, and, unfortunately, increasingly tighter regulations that prevent most people from getting their bus license.”
As a vast rural school district covering parts of four counties with buildings in two different communities located some 15 miles apart, there isn’t much Mix can do to combine routes and thereby lessen the need for drivers, he said, but the district did threaten in early August it might have to do just that in a letter to the community.
“Like the vast majority of school districts in the state of Iowa, we are experiencing a shortage of bus/shuttle drivers,” Superintendent John Howard wrote in a letter dated Aug. 1. “The district has been advertising for drivers all year, including this summer, and we have hired a couple of new drivers. This has greatly helped.”
But Howard went on to write that, at the time, the district was still short two full-time route drivers in La Porte City and one full-time route driver in Dysart, while also having zero substitutes and no assigned drivers for many of its extracurriculars.
“The importance of finding the number of necessary drivers can’t be overstated,” Howard continued. “Without the required number of drivers, bus routes may have to be permanently combined; certain bus stops may have to be temporarily or permanently eliminated; high school shuttles from both communities may be stopped and fall extra-curricular participants may have to leave much earlier than in the past for after school away contests/games, thereby missing more class time, if we can’t find enough bus/shuttle drivers.”
Since the letter’s publication, Mix said the shortage has been alleviated somewhat in La Porte City.
“We have hired one driver. We have [two] subs filling in for the other route. Technically, still short one driver [in La Porte].”
The Dysart driver shortage has received a creative fix as well.
“All full-time [Dysart] routes have been filled but one route will be filled by a sub while another driver is out for surgery.”
In addition, Mix said his bus driver substitute roster currently has two openings in La Porte City and two openings in Dysart. In terms of afterschool activities, he’s been forced to resort to an alternative plan.
“[W]e are having coaches drive vans.”
School board discussion
During the August 21 school board meeting, Supt. Howard told the board that while the district is still looking for bus drivers, staffing elsewhere is “much better than a lot of the districts around here.”
The district, Howard said, is “staffed enough” to complete all its routes for the time being, but that’s only because Mix himself along with high school agriculture/FFA teacher Adam Sacquitne were stepping in behind the wheel to drive.
“I would like to have them not drive as much, especially John,” Howard stated.
The district’s difficulty in finding drivers is certainly not for a lack of trying. It seemed practically every third post on the district’s Facebook page last school year and over the summer was about the district’s need for bus drivers.
“We are in need of a full-time bus route driver,” the district wrote on Facebook in August. “This would include a regular bus route each AM and PM, plus the opportunity to drive field trips, athletic and extracurricular events. New this year, increased pay.”
Route drivers this year are paid $47.50 per route – morning and afternoon – and around $23 per hour for activity/sports routes, in addition to other benefits, Howard wrote in the Aug. 1 letter.
Those other benefits include covering all aspects of bus driver certification which changed considerably in early 2022 due to the new, federal Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) requirements.
The advent of ELDT – first mandated by Congress in 2012 – established a single, national standard for obtaining a commercial driver’s license. Under the change, those individuals obtaining a CDL for the first time, upgrading a Class B or C license, or obtaining an endorsement including a school bus endorsement must first complete ELDT which can, for some individuals, become an insurmountable obstacle.
“One of the biggest hurdles schools are having are the tighter regulations on bus drivers,” Mix said. “With ELDT being required and with no way around it, it prevents many people from having the time to get licensed. We have had people that want to drive bus be unable to attend training and that prevents them from driving for us.”
Thankfully, the Union school board was able to approve the 2023-24 bus routes without modification – 17 routes/shuttles in total – during the Aug. 21 meeting but the situation remains far from ideal.
“In a perfect world I would have three more full time drivers and at least six more part time/sub drivers,” Mix said.
In the meantime, the wheels on Union’s big yellow buses — thanks to a crucial lift from substitutes — will continue to turn ‘all through the town’ and beyond this school year.
If you know of someone who is currently licensed to drive a school bus or is thinking about becoming a bus driver, please contact John Mix by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (319)231-4640.