PHOENIX — School may have wrapped up for the summer, but district officials throughout Arizona will be busy preparing for the next school year.
One of the big challenges they hope to address over the summer is the school bus driver shortage that has impacted their operations. Almost every district has multiple job openings for school bus drivers right now and districts are struggling to recruit drivers every year.
Fern Wood, a bus driver supervisor for the Florence Unified School District in Pinal county, has been behind the wheel of a bus for 17 years. She called it a rewarding job, but also a big responsibility.
"The kids are wonderful you know, you do have to love kids to do this job," said Wood.
But she also admitted the last few years had been tough; with so many vacancies in the district, drivers like Wood were having to double up on school bus routes, which means longer workdays for drivers and for students, and sometimes a delay in getting home on time.
"Sometimes they are getting home later, the buses are more crowded, and to me when you overcrowd your buses, it makes it unsafe," said Elwin Longnion, Director of Transportation for the Florence Unified School district.
To get more bodies behind the wheels, districts like Florence were looking within, for anyone who had a CDL license. That meant they had mechanics and other transportation department staff driving the buses on some days. Jay Horckman joined the district as a mechanic. ABC15 found him behind the wheel of a bus, getting ready to take high school students' home after the school day, and asked him if he had ever anticipated driving a school bus.
"No not really, I just kind of filled in the gaps," said Horckman.
Even the Director of Transportation himself had to jump in behind the wheel to help fill in those gaps.
"Beginning of the school year, 2021 I actually had a route," said Longnion.
Florence was not the only district getting creative in staffing the school buses. Across the Valley, Paradise Valley school district officials said they were 37 drivers short, so the school year had been all hands-on deck when it came to getting students to and from school.
"We have our dispatchers and our routers and all of the employees in the transportation department will drive our students," said Michelle Ostot, a Director of Human Resources for the Paradise Valley Unified School District.
In Queen Creek, officials said they had relied on a third-party transportation service to help fill in the gaps on days when they did not have enough school bus drivers.
Chandler officials did not specify the number of drivers they needed but, in a statement, said they struggled every year to keep those positions staffed.
In a statement, a Chandler schools spokesman said:
"We use a number of avenues to market our bus driver positions. They include posting on Indeed.com, banners on buses, marquee signage, employment sites, retirement communities and Chandler Gilbert Community College.
Selling points included: Working with students and making a difference in their lives, flexible schedule. Some like working some the same schedule as their students, for example. The positions are benefitted at 30 hours, including health care and state retirement.
That’s what works for us, though we have to work hard to fill these spots every year. This year was especially challenging because we didn’t have work for drivers when we were virtual and because of [COVID-19] concerns for others."
WHY IS THERE AN ONGOING BUS DRIVER SHORTAGE?
ABC15 asked several school bus drivers why they felt there was such a shortage in this profession.
"Well, it definitely needs a pay increase, you know," said Wood.
For having the sole responsibility of protecting your children while on the bus, and getting them to and from school safely, Wood added that the pay was just not good enough for many drivers who found it hard to make ends meet on a salary that was barely above minimum wage in some districts.
"Our starting pay is $14.25 after training. We're not the highest paid district. But our district staff is actually looking into that to see what they can do," said Longnion.
Neighboring Queen Creek and the Dysart Unified school districts both offer starting salaries that were over $16 an hour, while in Paradise Valley experienced drivers were getting more.
"We have a higher rate of pay at $18 an hour or up to $18 an hour," said Ostot.
To lure drivers into their districts, many were also now offering stipends. Almost every district has made the bus driver position a job with both health and retirement benefits, and they are offering paid training for those who need a CDL license to legally operate a bus.
Districts like Florence also have worked to ensure they did not have to let go of precious school bus drivers during the pandemic, when many students were attending classes virtually. The district hired the drivers to clean classrooms and help sanitize areas just to keep them on the payroll.
"They've been really good to us here," admitted Wood, calling the increased wages and benefits a big step in the right direction.
"A lot of our drivers are retired people, and they work for benefits. So, you know, it's huge," added Wood.
WHO IS HIRING FOR SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS?
Many districts will be holding job fairs to fill vacant positions this summer.
Take a look at the number of vacancies in the districts that responded to ABC15's request for information this week.
- Flagstaff Unified is short 25 drivers of their full staffing of 125 drivers.
- The J.O. Combs school district is currently hiring eight bus drivers. A job fair will be held at the district office on June 16.
- The Dysart Unified School District has 21 bus driver openings. A spokeswoman says, "In order to help with retention, Dysart bus drivers that return for the 21-22 school year will also receive a stipend equal to 3% of their 20-21 base pay. As an added incentive, those that work this summer will receive a temporarily increased rate of $25 an hour."
- The Paradise Valley Unified School District has 37 vacancies for a total staff of 112 drivers. The district is hosting a hybrid job fair on July 13.
- The Florence Unified School District is about 12-15 drivers short going into the next school year.