Tuesday, August 03, 1999

Schools begging for bus drivers

Suburban growth, strong economy cause shortages

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Training instructor Helen Cottongim of the Boone County schools works with Gary Eglian.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        When visitors log on to Lakota Schools' Web site, www.lakotaonline.com, the first thing they see on the home page is a plea for substitute bus drivers.

        Clicking on the one-line message on the top of the screen takes visitors to a page that outlines wages — $11.50 to $12.40 per hour — tells them that the rapidly growing district will train prospective drivers, and lures them with the promise of a bonus.

        Lakota's problem is not unique to the Tristate, or even the nation, school transportation experts say.

        Soaring enrollments in suburban school districts, combined with student discipline problems, a robust economy, and the wealth of higher-paying jobs in the private trucking industry, all cramp efforts to recruit bus drivers.

        While Tristate school officials say bus routes will be covered when school begins, many are scrambling to find relief drivers, or substitutes.

        “I always have a need for substitute drivers,” said Larry Lane, director of transportation for Butler County's Lakota Schools. His district is planning to add routes this year to accommodate the 450 to 500 new students the district is expecting.

        “I've been calling ex-employees to see if they're interested in coming back,” Mr. Lane said. “I've got six or seven new hires, but I'm still short of my goal.”

        Other districts have recently hiked bus drivers' wages or are considering doing so, and many have adopted stricter discipline policies for student passengers, or have started recognition programs.

        “It seems that when the economy is good, that's when we have the most shortages,” said Don Dutton, assistant director of the pupil transportation section for the Ohio Department of Education. “Folks can go out and make more money in jobs that are much less stressful and much less demanding.”

        While driving a school bus can be an ideal fit for stay-at-home moms, retirees looking to supplement their pensions, or self-employed workers looking for benefits or extra income, too many prospective drivers are dissuaded from entering the profession, or soon leave it, because they can't get enough hours.

        “If we pay them $8 to $10 an hour, that sounds like a fairly good salary, but if you don't get enough hours in, that's not enough for most people,” said Bobby Sheroan, director of transportation for Hardin County Schools in Elizabethtown, Ky., and a presenter of state and national workshops on bus driver recruitment and retention.

        Many drivers also are lost to the trucking industry, once they complete their training and earn their commercial driver's license, or CDL, he said.

        The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services continues to lobby for a federal law mandating a school-specific CDL, so that schools no longer are used as training grounds for private industry, said Ted Tull, the group's administrative director. In the meantime, the association is urging each state to adopt its own school-specific CDL. So far, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio have not done so.

        To lure new drivers and keep experienced ones, school districts are becoming more innovative.

        • Lakota, like many districts, seeks drivers on the information superhighway. The district also offers drivers a $200 bonus after six months of satisfactory performance.

        • The Kenton County School District — Northern Kentucky's second-largest school system — recently advertised for drivers and monitors via a banner-draped school bus parked at high-traffic campuses and on the Kenton County fairgrounds. Transportation officials also plan to search for new “empty nesters” interested in bus driving at each of the elementary schools' fall festivals.

        • In Princeton City Schools, where regular drivers must pass a civil service test, the district will recruit drivers at a job fair at Princeton High School from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 12.

        “We try to recruit through our regular drivers who might know people,” said Angie Berger, director of transportation. “Right now, we're in dire need of substitutes.”

        • Western Butler County's Talawanda Schools contract with Laidlaw Transit to provide bus service. To minimize driver turnover, because many drivers worked for Talawanda before it contracted out bus service five years ago, the district included a provision guaranteeing drivers a 75 cents per hour increase each year of the new four-year contract that be gins next month.

        “We wanted to make sure wages stayed competitive, so we could keep drivers,” said James Rowan, Talawanda's treasurer.

        • Like many Northern Kentucky school districts, the fast-growing Boone County School District now guarantees its new substitute drivers at least four hours of work a day, making them eligible for benefits. Known as full-time subs, or full-time relief drivers in many Kentucky districts, those who aren't driving a bus on a given day may be doing paperwork, working as a monitor, learning a new route, or washing a bus.

        Boone County Schools also offers a $250 bonus to drivers after a year of satisfactory performance.

        • In Ohio's Belmont County, where bus driver recruitment is a “never ending process,” some transportation supervisors recruit drivers at the school year's initial PTA meetings, said Dan Marling, transportation director for the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities of Belmont County. Because there's little turnover for full-time bus driving jobs, districts in Belmont County also share substitute drivers to ensure that they have steady work, he said.

        Some districts have even recruited parents who call the transportation office with complaints about bus service.

        “If a parent calls up to complain about a bus running late, or some other problem, a district may invite them in, and sometimes ends up recruiting them,” said Mr. Marling, also the president of the Ohio Association of Pupil Transportation.

        Unlike area school districts, Laidlaw Transit officials say they are not hurting for drivers. The firm contracts with Tristate school districts and operates between 350 and 400 routes in Greater Cincinnati.

        “Our current situation is very good,” said Dale Moser, Laidlaw's area general manager for Greater Cincinnati. “We only have spot shortages here and there where we might be short a driver or two.”

        Mr. Moser attributes his firm's success in hiring and retaining drivers to fair and competitive wages, a top-notch safety and training program, good working conditions, and focus on transportation.

        While driving a school bus isn't for everyone, some say it's a perfect fit for them.

        After retiring as the divisional vice president for Western Southern Life Insurance Co., Bobby Jones was persuaded by a friend to try driving a school bus last year.

        “We traveled for awhile, and then that got boring, said the 58-year-old Independence man. “Driving a school bus breaks up the day. It's a good job for anyone who needs benefits, or who wants to work a couple of hours in the morning, and a few hours in the evening.”


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