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Bus driver shortage causing delays for students

Posted on Wednesday, December 6, 2017 at 11:10 am

By Rachel Christian
Staff Writer
Schools across the nation are grappling with a shortage of bus drivers, and Osceola County is no exception.
According to a recent survey by School Bus Fleet magazine, nearly a third of the nation’s 50 largest school bus operators reported dealing with a “severe” or “desperate” driver shortage.
In Osceola County, School District transportation department officials have been

news-gazette photo /martin maddock
The Osceola School District is looking for bus drivers. Those interested in applying for a position can visit jobs.osceolaschools.net.

scrambling since August to fill over 45 open positions.
Many current drivers are picking up two and three extra routes daily in order to get kids to school.
Still, the shortage continues to cause significant delays for students, with some arriving at school up to an hour after class begins.
The situation has grown so critical that managers and directors at the School District transportation office are stepping out from behind their desks to get behind the wheel.
“Everyone is tired and worn out,” Transportation Coordinator David King said after wrapping up an afternoon route. “Everyone is doing all that they can, but we just don’t have enough people.”
Why the shortage is happening
King said the shortage didn’t happen overnight. He’s been noticing fewer drivers for the last two or three years.
But, he added, this year has been worse than the rest.
The district lost some operators to retirement this year, and King said his office is still struggling to fill vacancies left by the department’s aging workforce. Employees out due to injury or a personal leave of absence are also contributing factors, King said.
And then there is the issue of wages.
Bus drivers in Osceola County start out at $11.18 an hour, and many believe they should be paid more. King shares that belief.
“We all want them to get paid more,” he said. “But transportation is one portion of the school district’s annual budget. Unless our piece of the pie gets bigger somehow, it’s going to be difficult to increase pay.”
Recently, a 25-cent pay increase went into effect for all Osceola County bus drivers. The raise was approved by the School Board, but according to School District spokeswoman Dana Schafer, the district will not be able to take further action with wages until it talks with union leaders.
According to Schafer, the district has attempted to contact the union – which also represents school maintenance and food service employees – since May, but has yet to hear back.
Growing frustration
Parents across Osceola are growing frustrated with increased delays.
Some can find alternative transportation, but others cannot. King said he encourages parents to call the district’s parent hotline number (407-483-3673) to report issues and find out when their child’s bus may arrive.
He said the district also plans to roll out an app after the holidays called Here Comes the Bus. The app will allow parents to track all the school buses within a one-mile radius of their home.
Kissimmee resident Debbie Sellers has been a bus driver for Osceola County for 16 years. Although Sellers said she loves her job, she worries about how the shortage is affecting students.
“I pick up kids when I see them because I hate seeing them waiting by the side of the road waiting, when all they want to do is go to school,” she said.
Sellers, a single mom, said she first became a driver because it mirrored her kids’ schedule. Still, she acknowledged that few pay increases and decreased benefits have made it difficult to attract and keep good drivers.
Solving the problem
With the county continuing to grow, the only true solution to the district-wide shortage is to hire additional drivers.
The transportation department is now a regular presence at local job fairs, with recruiters hoping to attract trained CDL drivers – or at least people who are willing to learn.
To operate a school bus for the district, applicants must have a clean driving record without a single infraction or ticket for the last three years. They must also pass drug and background checks along with four CDL-B permitting tests. Finally, the district itself requires drivers to undergo a minimum of 40 hours of hands-on training for those with prior experience and 75 hours of training for first-time drivers.
King said the necessary, yet extensive vetting process thins the crowd of potential candidates even further, and said it is why it’s important to keep the drivers they already have.
The district has started using incentives – such as quarterly bonuses for perfect attendance – to motivate drivers and decrease delays for students.
They are also offering full benefits to operators after 30 to 45 days instead of the standard 90-day period.
The district is also eyeing relocated drivers displaced by Hurricane Maria as potential employees. It currently has 12 evacuees from Puerto Rico making their way through the bus driver hiring process.
King said the new drivers would be a boon to the district, especially as it works to keep up with the hundreds of new students still arriving from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“We are more than happy to hire these people,” King said. “Driving is driving, no matter what country you’re in. They want jobs and we need these positions filled.”
Those who are interested in applying for a bus driver position can visit jobs.osceolaschools.net.