The start of a new school year comes with the same old problem for many districts: not enough qualified drivers to make the wheels of the bus go round.
District 833 is one of them. Carrie Olson, director of transportation operations for South Washington County Schools, said the district is short about 25 bus operators. They haven't been fully staffed for the past five years, she said.
Full time staff, including Olson herself, often pitch in to drive a bus on days when they're short. They might change some routes on days when they can't get enough people to ensure that all children are picked up on time, she said.
"It seems that when the economy is good, the drivers pool shrinks," Olson said. "There's a lot of competition. It's drivers in general. You look around at the sanitation department and cement truck drivers."
That competition includes Metro Transit, which cut some routes last year due to a shortage of drivers.
Carissa Keister, community engagement manager for Stillwater Area Public Schools, echoed that sentiment. District 834 contracts with Minnesota Central School Bus to fill its fleet.
Keister said the district is currently short 20 drivers, but because Stillwater starts earlier than other area districts, it's able to "borrow" drivers to fill in for the first week or two while new drivers are being trained. Minnesota Central, an arm of North America Central School Bus, has also brought in some of their drivers from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Keller, Texas, to fill in.
Olson said they've posted open driver positions online, in newspapers and radio. They set up a booth at job fairs. They've flashed their message on the electronic marquees outside East Ridge, Park and Woodbury high schools.
"We pay for the pre-employment drug test and background checks, as well as the (Department of Transportation) physical," she said. B
The idea of driving a large vehicle and being responsible for the safety of children can intimidate some people, Olson said. But drivers who apply have their training program paid by the district, which is not the case for many other driver employers, she said.
Bus drivers make, on average, $20 an hour. Last year, the district spent $177,836 in overtime in the transportation department last year, much of it attributable to the bus driver shortage.
The district has its own fleet of buses, with approximately 130 drivers. Olson said the period from April to June last year was particularly challenging.
"I think last year we had several people who were out on unexpected medical leave, unexpected retirements," she said.
Shelly Jonas, executive director of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, runs her own school bus company in Annandale.
"I would say in general it's worse," Jonas said. "I think that our people have been working harder than ever trying to hire people this summer. They're just not seeing that activity coming in, or new hires."
Another factor is the strict screening process for school bus drivers. Applicants are disqualified if they have been convicted of a gross misdemeanor or drunk driving offense in the past five years.
"I've read that one in nine people have a DUI," Jonas said. "That's 15 percent right off the top.I think that the pool of eligible drivers is quite small. Our industry has to be a little bit fussy about who they hire."
School districts and bus companies must adapt to the changing job market.
"I think a lot of people have become a lot more creative," she said. "They just can't hang a 'We're hiring' sign on the door anymore. They're doing vehicle fairs and going to where the people are and sitting in the parking lots of big box stores, going to job fairs and radio stations."
Andy Smith, assistant director of transportation operations for District 833, said they employ five stand-by drivers. If they need more, they have substitute drivers.
"They're kind of like substitute teachers," Smith said.
If they still need more, they call upon bus mechanics and other credentialed full-time staff.
"Then it becomes difficult, because they've left a void somewhere else on the support side," Smith said.
Minnesota Central does the same, said assistant contract manager Amy Monicken.
“If we don’t have enough drivers, I get away from my desk and I get behind the wheel," she said.
Driving a bus route on top of a full-time job can add up to 14-hour days, Monicken said. At the end of the last school year, the entirety of Minnesota Central's staff was filling in in Stillwater.
School District 622, which includes North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale, is one of the exceptions.
"Right now, we're sitting OK internally with our routes," said Josh Anderson, director of communications and technology innovation for District 622. "We do also contract with other vendors for bus service, but they are unsure as of now about their coverage."