Bus driver shortages are the new norm as new school year starts

Busses leave after morning drop-off.
Busses leave St. Paul's Ramsey Middle School after morning drop-off on October 31, 2016.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News 2016

Updated: 5:30 p.m. | Posted: 3:35 p.m.

The long-running shortage of school bus drivers continues into the new school year and transportation officials around the state say the situation has become so chronic they have to recruit year-round.

Pretty much everyone is looking to hire, said Shelly Jonas, executive director of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association.

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"Some of them are saying it's much worse. Some are saying it's about the same as last year," she said. "It hasn't improved, I guess I can tell you that much."

Jonas, whose company operates buses in the Annandale, Maple Lake and Buffalo school districts said she would love to see two or three new drivers walk in the door right now to give her a hand.

Karen DeVet, chief operating officer of the Minneapolis Public Schools could do with quite a few more.

"Right now that's about 26 drivers," she said, which would bring the number up to the district's full complement of 150. She said the district also contracts with private companies to bus students and they need drivers, too.

"We don't know specifically the staffing shortages for our partners," she said. "However in our first two days of school we are aware that they are short-staffed and they have asked that we take back some routes that were assigned to them."

DeVet says the district constantly has to be flexible and creative, consolidating routes and making strategic use of substitute drivers. It will mean longer rides for some, and sometimes arriving late to school.

At the St. Paul Public Schools, transportation director Tom Burr said he believes the district will be able to cover all the routes at the beginning of the year, but it will require drawing drivers from other parts of his department.

"For example, mechanics, dispatchers, trainers, safety staff, managers," Burr wrote in response to a query from MPR. "These are the people that typically stay in the office and cover phones, make route changes, fix buses etcetera."

Burr, DeVet and Jonas say the thriving economy is causing the shortage. Drivers of all kinds are in demand. In the metro area DeVet says the schools compete with Metro Transit, which has also struggled to hire enough drivers. Jonas says finding drivers has become an ongoing challenge.

"You can't just hang out a sign in August and expect people to come through the door," she said. "You really gotta be pounding the pavement year round looking for people that are qualified to drive."

And not just anybody can become a bus driver.

"Applicants need good driver's records, clean criminal history, pass numerous written tests, be medically fit," Burr said, adding hours can be an issue for some people as well.

"A typical school bus driver works six to seven hours a day, 180 days a year. This does not allow for sustaining salary," he said.

In rural areas the job is often seen as public service, Jonas said. Long-serving school bus drivers can take students from kindergarten through high school, and have more interaction with them than individual teachers. She says it can be an attractive job for retirees, but that can pose a challenge as some drivers head south in the winter.

"So there's usually another recruiting period we have to do in December and January to kind of fill those snowbird vacancies," she said.