MORE RIDERS, MANY FEWER DRIVERS
As the bus driver labor shortage reaches a critical level, Park Hill school officials are working with First Student, the district’s longtime provider of student transportation services, to consider introducing extreme solutions to remedy the situation.
Jim Rich, director of operations, informed the Park Hill Board of Education Thursday evening that First Student is understaffed by 51 drivers—this is compounded by the fact that bus ridership has risen higher this school year than in prior years, especially among high school-age students.
Accordingly, more drivers are needed to assume the district’s three-tiered bus schedule which equates to 66 single school bus routes.
Rich said First Student is contractually obligated to have enough drivers to cover all of the routes, as well as 15 prime-time trip drivers, and 15 substitute drivers. Right now, the district has only one trip driver to transport students to athletic events or activities between schools, zero substitute drivers, and is understaffed by 22 route drivers.
Obviously, the situation has become dire as more than 20 out of 120 routes lack a permanent driver. That’s about 17 percent of the district’s school bus routes. Accordingly, the district continues to monitor the impact of the bus driver shortage and has been identifying a multitude of strategies to mitigate the impact on each student’s journey to and from school.
At the start of the school year, First Student brought in nine bus drivers from Minnesota to cover school bus routes in the first two weeks of school. The strategy was merely a temporary fix as the bus drivers recently returned to Minnesota on Sept. 6.
First Student and Park Hill are committed to using an all-hands-on-deck approach. First Student has utilized its trainers, routers, office staff, and mechanics as bus drivers to cover the labor gap. “That’s the only way that they have been able to cover routes,” said Rich.
Park Hill has made a similar effort, removing three staff members—all of whom previously worked for First Student– from their school duties to drive afternoon routes.
Students are also feeling the ramifications. Park Hill families were made aware that a large number of adjustments were recently made to accommodate overcrowding on routes and to address concerns with bus stop environments. Changes to the student’s bus number, bus stop, and pick-up time were shared on the Infinite Campus parent portal on Sept. 1.
The district has 11,698 students disseminated across 20 schools, making it one of the largest districts in the state. All students are assigned a bus route regardless of whether the student lives in close proximity to their school. But that may change.
District officials are considering a strategy that would reduce the number of daily school bus routes and trips by excluding the availability of bus transportation for students residing within a one-mile or perhaps 3.5-mile radius of their school. In these instances, though, significantly fewer students would have access to public transportation because the areas in and around schools are so densely populated.
Dr. Mike Kimbrel, the superintendent of the Park Hill School District, said the situation is extremely difficult and the district is considering all options.
“Our goal is to not shift this burden to students and families if we can avoid it,” said Kimbrel. “So, that includes not wanting to change start times for schools and limiting transportation access. We are trying to find solutions that are helping us to not have to get to that type of extreme.”
To some extent, the bus driver labor shortage is due to employees switching jobs. First Student is losing highly qualified drivers to other competing school districts and to industries like Amazon. Bus driver positions in particular are split shifts and often lack paid health benefits packages.
Even with a $2,000 signing bonus up for grabs, recruiting new bus drivers continues to be a struggle. With fall around the corner and a potential rise in coronavirus cases limiting the already minuscule pool of available drivers, the district is focusing on reducing the daily absences of drivers. Rich said there is about a 10 percent absentee rate every day.
To curb daily absences and reward job commitment, First Student employees can earn a $500 per month incentive bonus for perfect attendance beginning Sept. 1.
Park Hill has also rolled out a new job combo option for PHSD non-instructional staff and First Student drivers. Under this option, the 900 or so non-instructional staff members could dually work for First Student by completing their in-district duties during non-driving times. In doing so, PHSD employees would receive paid training to obtain their Commercial Driver’s License and will be eligible for all bonuses, including the $2,000 signing bonus and $500 perfect attendance bonus.
“We estimate that the training takes about 55 hours and so this is not going to be something we can turn around overnight, but we did get our first responses to this, and we have about 20 individuals in the last 24 hours–since this has gone out–that have inquired about it,” said Dr. Paul Kelly, assistant superintendent-business and technology.
This is a reciprocal option available to all First Student employees who are interested in pairing their bus driver role with open positions in Park Hill, added Dr. Kelly.
Kimberlee Ried, board vice president, inquired if the dual role would activate the status of those employees to full-time with health benefits. Dr. Kelly said paid health benefits are on the table even if they don’t quite reach full-time status.
In the meantime, district officials will continue to take load counts and consolidate routes when possible. But there is a downside when operating at this level of efficiency, said Kelly. When a mechanical issue causes the bus to break down, there won’t be an extra bus driver available to jump in. This scenario will cause a significant delay in service.
Dr. Kelly said Park Hill is recording key performance metrics to monitor any patterns and to evaluate if its current strategies are making a dent in the problem.
If these strategies flop and the shortage of drivers persist, it is clear Park Hill may deploy more extreme measures. One option would be to shift start times to allow First Student a wider timespan for pick-ups and drop-offs. Buses would transition from a three-tiered route to a four-tiered system. Thus, First Student would run four separate routes each morning and afternoon.
“Historically, we had a two-tiered system, meaning that a bus and bus driver would pick up a secondary student and take them to school and then run an elementary school route and take them to school. We shifted to a three-tiered route that generally takes a third to a quarter fewer drivers. So, we have deployed this as a strategy with the sole purpose of reducing the number of drivers,” said Dr. Kelly.
Another strategy in use is the rental of minivans to transport students to athletic events and activities between buildings. These vehicles don’t require a CDL to operate, so athletic directors, coaches, and staff members can transport students without completing the 55 hours or so required to obtain a Commercial Driver’s License.
Janice Bolin, board president, asked if the district offers liability insurance for coaches and parents serving as trip drivers.
Dr. Kelly assured board members that the district has an insurer who provides liability coverage for coaches and staff members. Parents, on the other hand, are not covered by the district’s provider. For this reason, the district has parents transport their own kiddo and refrain from serving as trip drivers.
Now that district officials have communicated the severity of the situation, they will seek the board of education’s approval of these strategies for future consideration at the Sept. 22 board meeting.