A shortage of bus drivers led the Chandler Unified School District to use private charter buses for games and other student activities, eating up in one semester the district’s annual $100,000 extracurricular transportation budget.
With more than 10 positions open, staff members in the transportation department who are certified drivers have resorted to covering vacant routes. Some drivers even cover two routes, making commutes for students longer and availability of drivers more scarce.
It’s a problem not only plaguing the Chandler district, but school districts across the state: Dwindling driver pools coupled with a soaring state population and a flurry of schools being built annually.
The Arizona Department of Transportation estimates that the number of students transported in the 2004-05 school year jumped by 20,000 compared with the previous year. Bus fleets increased by 15 percent, but the applicant pool for drivers remained stagnant.
“We just can’t seem to get enough people in,” said Emy Atwood, field operations technician for the Chandler district. “It takes a real special person to get on board with those kids.”
Atwood said she meets bus driver recruits frequently who do well through the training sessions, but realize the job isn’t for them once they begin routes with kids.
Two weeks ago the Chandler district governing board voted to increase extracurricular driving funds by $100,000 after plowing through the annual allotment of $100,000 in one semester.
Associate superintendent Jeanette Polvani said the district is using the money from 11 open positions to cover the expenses. Polvani said she also expects the cost of extracurricular transportation to go up next year due to the driver shortage and the use of private chartered buses.
The Chandler district saw a drop in driver applicants during the summer last year. Polvani and other East Valley transportation directors believe the drop is due to a strong economy in Arizona and the multitude of jobs that creates.
But the biggest challenge districts face is finding the right person for the job, Polvani said.
“I think that a bus driver requires a unique set of skills,” Polvani said. “They not only have to be an excellent driver, but also have to have good student management skills. Finding staff that meet both sets of skills is sometimes challenging.”
Chandler bus drivers make $11.64 per hour. Most districts also pay drivers during the training process, which can take up to six weeks to complete.
To combat the shortage of drivers, districts from Scottsdale to Mesa have placed advertisements on school buses, school marquees and even purchased advertisement space in local newspapers.
In the Tempe Elementary School District, spokeswoman Monica Allread says advertising air-conditioned buses and full benefits for part-time bus drivers has helped fill all 75 of the district’s positions. The Tempe district is also consolidating a few routes to best use their resources, Allread said.
The Mesa Unified School District frequently places school buses with huge banners on street corners to try to get the word out, said Jill Benza, assistant superintendent of business and support services. The district has also made strides to offer more full-time positions.
“We have been very proactive in that we have tried to offer as many benefit positions as we can,” Benza said.
“Traditionally, school bus driver positions are part-time. What we’ve done is tried to combine some part-time positions and make some full-time positions.”
The district has also provided training sessions during the weekend to get bus drivers out the door and onto routes sooner, Benza said. During training, drivers are paid $10.80 per hour, which bumps up to $11.39 per hour once they start their routes.
In the Scottsdale Unified School District, director of transportation Daniel Shearer said school buses with advertisements will be rolled out next week.
Scottsdale also has tried to entice staff members to find interested drivers by offering $400 for every driver employees recruit. If the driver stays for 30 days, the employee pockets an additional $200. At the six-month mark, if the driver is still with the district, it’s another $200.