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Valley school buses to roll on despite shortage of drivers

Michael Riley, a bus mechanic for Boardman Local Schools, changes the head and sending unit for the school bus coolant system. Although most school districts in Ohio are experiencing a bus driver shortage, Boardman has enough because it offers “dual contracts” that provide additional work for drivers to entice those who may be wary of not working enough hours....Staff photo / Chris McBride

As students adjust to waking for their early morning commutes to school, a full supply of bus drivers is needed to help make those trips possible.

But according to David Bowlin, Ohio Department of Education director of field services and pupil transportation, a driver shortage spans not only across Ohio, but nationwide.

“Looking at the fact that there’s a shortage, if you take one bus driver away, instead of going to seven bus stops he’s going to 14 now — those extras are typically picked up by someone else,” Bowlin explained.” If you have a bigger district with 600 drivers and you lose 80, the same applies.”

He added: “There are districts reporting daily that they’re short drivers and substitute drivers for the upcoming school year. It doesn’t seem to be going away any time shortly.”

Some Mahoning Valley schools are dealing with the shortage by making adjustments.

BOARDMAN’S TRAINING

As an example, the Boardman Local School District last week hosted in-service training, one of several hourlong instructional courses planned to meet the four-hour state requirement. But Boardman added an additional four hours to ensure its drivers are fully acclimated to the rules and regulations.

Boardman trains in-house with onboarding instructors leading classes to get drivers their commercial license along with the needed bus and passenger endorsements. The process takes about two months working around the drivers’ schedules.

Almost a full staff of bus drivers, some of whom have been with Boardman schools for more than 20 years, attended to hear from state troopers and Nick Deniakis, district supervisor of transportation.

“We have about 50 contracted routes, so we have 50 bus drivers and six bus aides to accommodate special needs buses that travel throughout the district, Deniakis said.

The Boardman district spans 25 miles. Deniakis said he has an adequate amount to drive the routes.

Boardman offers “dual contracts” to entice drivers who may be wary of not working enough hours. These contracts allow for bus drivers to work in other areas such as in the cafeteria during down time from driving.

“This way, they work a full eight-hour day to accommodate themselves and keep their bills paid,” said Deniakis.

The process seems to be working as almost the full staff of drivers attended the in-service training.

“We’ve been fortunate to run like a well oiled machine,” Deniakis said.

TOUGH TIMES

Some school districts, though, are not faring as well in getting certified drivers.

The Ohio Department of Education requires pre-service certification that can last from four to five days. These certifications are valid for six years.

The Poland Local School District faces an uphill battle ahead of the 2022-23 school year: A shortage has left it with only 16 drivers for 20 routes, according to district Superintendent Craig Hockenberry. That figure is six or seven under the number needed.

“We’ve been fighting it. We started before the shortage. We had over 20 drivers, but around COVID-19 (the pandemic) we started to lose drivers. We went from 20 to 18,” Hockenberry said.

The shortage will not end any time soon, as the Poland district will be losing six more drivers to retirement come January.

Scrambling for solutions, Hockenberry said the district has used several methods. One has been the addition of “cluster stops.”

These cluster stops allow for the district to consolidate children who are normally on a different bus route to one central route within 1.5 miles walking distance, the most allowed under state law.

Hockenberry said he hopes these changes ease parental concerns.

“Parents get frustrated because they have to get to work in the morning. Kids get home late in the afternoon, which affects their ability to do sports or other activities,” he said.

He described this as a trickle-down effect of the shortage.

Like other schools, Poland also is weighed down by the process of getting CDL drivers, citing that the process can take months.

Hockenberry said he has been in contact with state legislators to speed up the process by eliminating requirements for drivers to learn the mechanical aspects of the bus.

“Our bus drivers aren’t going to be doing any of the mechanical work on these buses,” Hockenberry said.

He argues this is something they would delegate to the district’s bus mechanics. By eliminating this barrier, he said it would keep drivers from dropping out of the process altogether because of the amount of time needed to complete training.

The Poland district also has the advantage of being one of the districts capable of doing the onboarding with instructors in-house.

Poland does offer paid training, benefits, a competitive wage and pays for background checks to help appeal to drivers, the superintendent noted.

Traci Hostetler, superintendent of the Eastern Ohio Educational Service Center in Canfield, said: “We’re competing with private industries for drivers, and often the determination is a few thousand dollars per year. What candidates don’t realize is that the average bus driver works less than 190 days per year, so they have time to pick up additional income during the summer and holidays if that’s a need.”

“Additionally, many districts offer a rich benefits package as well as contributions toward retirement, which is difficult to find in private industry. In the long run, those are huge game-changers.”

TRUMBULL COUNTY

Michael Hanshaw, Trumbull County Educational Service Center superintendent, said that most schools lack the ability to offer instructor-led courses for drivers to get pre-service certification.

TCESC hosts pre-service certification classes put on by ODE instructors, and Hanshaw said it has increased the number of classes to accommodate the demand for drivers.

To keep up with the demand for drivers, the Warren City Schools developed a relationship with the private company Community Bus Service to help staff its routes. The partnership has been in place for years as the bus driver shortage has been a recurring problem.

For the upcoming school year, Warren City Schools Director of Operations John Lacy said the district has 22 routes depending on ridership. These routes are completed using 15 Warren bus drivers along with seven substitutes from CBS.

“We use Community Bus Service for the complete training and testing, and we as a school district pay for the training,” Lacy said. “It used to cost (the drivers) several hundred dollars and now with the shortage, we’ve been able to supplement that cost.”

This has been a big factor as drivers have become harder to come by for several reasons — including lack of ability to pay for training and competing with other employers.

“It’s been difficult to get them because of other job opportunities. We’ve lost a couple of drivers from other job opportunities like at the new battery plant in Lordstown,” Lacy said.

To remedy concerns that arise with paying drivers, Warren schools have taken several initiatives, including increasing pay to $21 an hour with benefits included.

Lacy said the school district is also stressing the importance of creating a good environment for drivers by placing educational aides on routes to assist when needed.

Helping to make good on their hours, Warren City Schools also has adopted “dual contracts” that allow drivers to work in between routes in areas such as maintenance or the cafeteria. Drivers also are offered year- round employment with the schools.

“We work 52 weeks — full-time all-year employees,” said Lacy. “They continue to do summer programs, help with summer feeding sites and prepare buses for the fall.”

cmcbride@tribtoday.com

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