PHOENIX — Bus driver shortages are plaguing districts across Arizona and the nation as more and more districts scramble to fill open positions — so what does that mean for your child's safety and what laws are in place to protect them?
"Every time we get a new shift and a new bus, we do this," explains David Alston, as he takes ABC15 along for his pre-check routine as a bus driver for Mesa Public Schools. "We check our student lights and we check our fluids."
These check-ups are all part of the daily routine for Alston, who's been on the job with Mesa for the past five years. He explains he heard about the job through friends who were also driving school buses.
"My reaction would be like most people - 'you drive kids around?' And it's not as bad as it sounds...I fell in love with it my first day!"
Alston is known as a "relief driver," meaning his routes can change day to day depending on need. He says the kids are the best part of his job. He also says he enjoys the pay and benefits he gets with the position, and explains the district is very flexible with his college course schedule, allowing him to adjust each semester.
"This is a lot more exciting and rewarding than any other job I've ever done."
That's the music to the ears of school districts that have mostly been singing the blues this year. ABC15 reached out to more than two dozen districts across the Valley -- only a handful told us they were fully staffed.
And all those openings got us wondering -- who determines how many bus drivers are needed in the first place?
We did some digging and discovered that currently, there are no state laws that dictate how many drivers are required for Arizona school districts. Instead, the Arizona Department of Public Safety told us that it's actually up to each individual school district to determine how many drivers and routes are needed.
Alston said districts have to consider a number of factors before deciding how many drivers and routes are necessary.
First, population - how many students are in the district? Second, geography - where do these students live? Third, numbers -how many schools are there? Districts must also keep in mind any accommodations for special-needs students.
"It comes down to the need of every single student and then we determine the routes," explains Alston.
Arizona school bus laws
Some people have asked if districts could require drivers to pick up overtime shifts to help cover open shifts, but there are laws on the books that restrict how many hours a bus driver can be on the road at a given time.
For example, according to AZ Statute Sec. R13-13-104C -- a driver has to have at least eight hours off the clock after driving ten hours.
Another law requires districts to keep track of a driver's hours for at least three years. (Sec. R13-13-104E)
DPS is also allowed to audit a number of practices with districts, including CDL certification, drug testing, and emergency drills.
DPS said, currently, they are not auditing drivers' hours. ABC15 is continuing to ask the state questions about who is in charge of keeping track of this.
Bus driver openings and special incentives
ABC15 reached out to a number of school districts across the Valley to see how many openings they have and if they're offering any special incentives. Check out our list below:
Student Population: Approx. 37,000
Number of Drivers: 92
Number of Open Driver Positions: Approx. 20
Incentives: Recently approved a $3.01/hour pay increase for all school bus drivers; approved a $1,750 stipend for school bus drivers
Student Population: 44,200
Number of Drivers: 199 (3 or 4 in training)
The District says, " This a position that we would continue to hire to account for flu season and turnover. The door is always open."
Student Population: 13,300
Number of Drivers: 64
Number of Open Driver Positions: No open positions, but District says it is continuously recruiting.
Student Population: 6,000
Number of Drivers: 19 drivers and 3 aides
Open Positions: 6 drivers and 2 aides
Incentives: On-site training so drivers can earn their CDL; $500 hiring stipend
Union Elementary School District
Student Population: Approx. 1,700
Number of Drivers: 6 full-time, 1 part-time
Number of Openings: 1
Mesa Public Schools
Student Population: Approx. 60,000
Number of Drivers: 329
Open Driver Positions: Approx. 60
Alhambra Elementary School District
Student Population: 10,203
Number of Drivers: 23
Open Driver Positions: 10
Incentives: $1,000 hiring bonus for CDL-licensed bus drivers, other bonuses
Tempe Elementary School District
Student Population: Approx. 11,000
Number of Drivers: 33
Open Driver Positions: 16
Incentives: Increased hourly wage to $17.26; all new and returning employees for the 2021-2022 school year receive a $3,000 stipend.
Littleton Elementary School District
Student Population: 5,733
Current Number of Bus Drivers: 26
Open Driver Positions: 0
Paradise Valley Schools
Student Population: District transports 8,000-10,000 students daily
Current Number of Drivers: 73
Number of Open Bus Driver Positions: 37
Number of Students: Approx. 24,000
Number of Drivers: 106
Open Positions: 18
Incentives: Starting pay increased to $20.00/hour for people with 0-3 years experience, additional increases for more seniored drivers; $500 for employees who recommend new employees.