North Country districts face wide-spread bus driver shortages

P-R FILE PHOTOSOfficials from school districts around the North Country are warning of a serious lack of bus drivers to handle transportation needs at schools.

PLATTSBURGH — The lack of school bus drivers in the North Country is so severe, that one school superintendent has taken up a route himself.

“At Schroon Lake, we are very desperate for people,” Schroon Lake Central School District Superintendent Stephen Gratto said.

Gratto and the district’s transportation director have each picked up bus routes themselves in order to deal with the shortage.

Gratto said Schroon Lake typically has six drivers take on four regular runs. He said the district is currently down one driver.

“Which doesn’t sound so bad except it is because there aren’t any [substitute drivers] either,” he said.

The district’s transportation director, who is also the head mechanic, has been filling in for the vacancy by driving a bus run each school day.

Gratto said he also picked up his bus driver’s license last summer and occasionally did sports trips and covered morning and afternoon runs as the district’s only substitute driver.

“Just about every school district is facing this problem. It’s not rare at all,” Gratto said.

“You could almost say every district in the North Country and probably around the state is having a similar problem.”

Serious Point

Plattsburgh City School District Superintendent Jay Lebrun said his district is also experiencing issues.

“I believe that the shortage has reached a serious point,” Lebrun said in an email. “Our district operates a very small transportation program, and we've even begun to experience driver shortages.”

Lebrun said shortages at his district started more as inconveniences that sometimes affected athletic schedules. Now, he said, entire programs, like summer school, are at risk.

Willsboro Central School District Superintendent Justin Gardner said his district’s shortages also affected its school schedule.

“This year, due to COVID, we split our elementary and high school bus runs to allow for social distancing, which put an additional strain on our transportation resources,” Gardner said in an email.

“Unfortunately, there were times where we had to cancel both school-day and extracurricular runs due to the unavailability of drivers on a particular day. In these instances, we relied on parent cooperation to help get everyone to school or the extracurricular event,” he continued.

Gardner said the driver shortage at Willsboro has worsened each year as their current longtime drivers reach retirement age.

The district employs three drivers currently, Gardner said. Ideally, they would have one more full-time driver and one to two more substitute drivers, Gardner said.

Lebrun said the city school district employs four permanent bus drivers, but that the greater issue is the lack of substitutes, which there are only three of, he said.

“A fair bit of bus driver work is part-time,” Lebrun said, “and perhaps this has been a deterrent for some. Also, we're all aware of the general lack of prospective employees in many, many jobs, so part of the current shortage is probably related to that phenomenon. Regardless of the causes, the need is real.”

Requirements

Gratto said he believes the requirements needed to become a bus driver makes it harder for districts to hire new drivers.

“New York State puts a lot of regulations out that causes it to be difficult to become a bus driver,” Gratto said. “And I know a lot more now than I did a year ago because I just went through all of this.”

Gratto said becoming a bus driver requires a lot of training, being fingerprinted, drug tested and attending a 30-hour course after getting a license.

“It’s a lot of time,” Gratto said. “The state does not make anything easy about this.”

Both Gratto and Lebrun said driver shortages existed at their districts before the pandemic, but they have gotten worse since then. Pending retirements and unforeseen illnesses in the future also add to the importance of finding more drivers.

Gratto said he hopes New York State eases up some requirements, so it’s more practical for people to become bus drivers.

Wages Vary

Gardner said Willsboro has increased pay for full-time and substitute drivers, which is $15 an hour with benefits, and $21 an hour, respectively.

They have also created an incentive program for substitutes, where they receive $250 for every 50 hours driven, and is offering to pay for training and licensing for new drivers, among other things in its efforts to fill open driver positions.

Lebrun said he hopes some outreach and promotion of the open positions available at his district will fill his district’s vacancies.

“I do believe that one solution involves education — informing people that these jobs exist, that they pay pretty well, and that despite the licensing requirements, they're really pretty attainable,” Lebrun wrote.

“I believe most districts would be very happy to work with prospective drivers to navigate the license endorsement required in addition to the [commercial driver’s license.] Whereas some individuals may find the inherent 'split schedule' of driving bus unappealing, others may find this very convenient,” he continued.

Lebrun said salary for an eight-hour bus driver in the city district is $36,000, with the option of health insurance. A four-hour driver earns an $18,000 salary with no insurance and a substitute driver is paid $22 an hour, Lebrun said.

Drivers are Pivotal

Gratto said he and the Schroon Lake district’s transportation director are prepared to continue picking up routes if needed, but that he hopes the open positions get filled so that students’ schedules don’t get affected.

“Times are difficult finding workers all throughout the education system, and drivers are as pivotal or more so as any other position because if we can’t get the kids to school, we can’t have school,” Gratto said.

“We don’t want a lack of bus drivers to impact our extracurricular activities.”

Email Fernando Alba:

falba@pressrepublican.com

Twitter: @byfernandoalba

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