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Michigan continues to grapple with bus driver shortages

Erin Dietzer/The Holland Sentinel • Sep 5, 2018 at 2:00 PM

Last school year, Livingston Public Schools students endured bus rides as long as 90 minutes due a shortage of drivers.

Lincoln Consolidated Schools in Ypsilanti had to cancel a day of school in February when there weren’t enough substitute drivers to cover for sick drivers. Dearborn Public Schools had to contract out nearly a quarter of its routes to a private company due to lack of drivers.

Stories like this are set to continue in the 2018-19 school year as districts across Michigan continue to grapple with a shortage of bus drivers.

“It’s important for kids to get an education, and they’re not going to get an education unless they get a ride to school,” said Robin Phelps, a bus driver with Fennville Public Schools. “We need drivers, everywhere needs drivers. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get more drivers.”

Bus drivers have been making an annual appearance on the Michigan Department of Education’s critical shortage list. Critical shortage areas are jobs that schools have a difficult time filling with qualified candidates, and retired school employees are eligible to come back to work those jobs without negatively impacting their pension or benefits.

The problem extends to other states besides Michigan.

In a November 2017 survey by School Bus Fleet magazine, 90 percent of respondents said they were suffering from some degree of bus driver shortage. Five percent defined it as a desperate shortage, 22 percent as a severe shortage, 33 percent as a moderate shortage, and 30 percent as a mild shortage.

It’s not clear why the shortage is so widespread, though many cite factors like short hours, split shifts, loss of benefits, or being intimidated about getting a commercial driver’s license. In areas like West Michigan, low unemployment is also a factor, as a smaller pool of potential employees makes it difficult for employers to find qualified candidates.

A lack of bus drivers has serious implications for school districts. It can mean consolidated bus routes and longer travel times for students, which nobody wants.

The effect of bus driver shortages is already being felt in the Holland area.

On Aug. 3, about two and a half weeks before school started, Holland Public Schools announced it was changing school start and end times. Superintendent Brian Davis said the change was related in part to availability of bus drivers.

The change caused some confusion and frustration for Holland parents. Carrie Walters, a Holland Heights parent, said she received the wrong pick-up time at a school open house, and then the bus was very late.

“It was my daughter’s first day of kindergarten and she was visibly upset,” Walters said. “We had built her up to ride the bus, she was used to riding the bus to Head Start, so (having) no bus really derailed the morning.”

Walters said she ended up taking her children to school to make sure they had enough time to eat breakfast there. She said she saw her children’s bus arrive at the school a couple of minutes before students started lining up to start the day.

“I checked with the school when I got there, and both kids were at the right stop and the bus wasn’t,” Walters said. “Confusion reigns supreme.”

Davis said there was some confusion on the first day, because a “small percentage” of families didn’t receive communication on whether or not their child qualified for transportation until the night before school started.

“Some of this confusion rested with those who had transportation last year and assumed they would this year, and in some cases we had to change pick up and drop off locations,” Davis said. “We tried to take a very personalized approach with those who had not yet been determined. These were largely specialized routes.

“With our new restructure, I asked that routes be created for every student who was outside of our walk distance, as we would not know for certain who would take the school bus or not, especially to Holland Middle School. Over these next few days, we will be modifying our routes accordingly.”

Davis said the district is still looking for three full-time drivers, and can always use substitute bus drivers.

Holland isn’t the only district looking for more drivers. West Ottawa Public Schools hired nine bus drivers over the summer, and still could use about five more.

“In this employment market, we absolutely could use more right now,” Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Jim English said. “If five people walked in today, we would provide training for free and have them busy most days of the week.”

Other districts like Zeeland said they’re fine on staffing.

“All routes are well covered and the first day of school, next Tuesday, is ready to go,” Superintendent Cal DeKuiper said. “Our drivers just finished the second of two kindergarten round-ups tonight. We run a few buses for just kindergarteners and bring the students and the parents on the buses to the elementary school for an orientation evening. This helps new families and kindergarteners get used to buses and the safety procedures.”

Phelps said Fennville transportation staff is still finalizing some bus routes, due to some last-minute enrollments, and they’d welcome other drivers to make things easier.

“I had one gentleman who said ‘I can drive in mornings,’ and I said ‘Hey, anything could help,’” she said.

Phelps, who has been a bus driver since 2002 and was recently named Michigan Bus Driver of the Year, said she thinks the job is especially great for retired people or parents who want to be on the same schedule as their kids.

“What I love about it is that I get to know the kids, and I get to be a part of their education,” Phelps said. “It’s a way to keep connected with the community and the school, and it’s rewarding. We’re the first ones they see in the morning, and we’re the last ones they see at night. It’s great being the connection between the teachers and the parents at home.”

Pay for bus drivers is typically between $14 and $16 an hour in West Michigan. Becoming a school bus driver requires attaining a Class B commercial driver’s license, and getting passenger and bus driver endorsements on that license. Most school districts provide paid training for the CDL. Some districts also have additional requirements like being at least 21 years old or having four points or fewer on their driving record.

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