Every afternoon, after a full day of fixing buses, Boulder Valley School District mechanic Andrew Thompson drops whatever he is doing and gets behind the wheel of a BVSD bus. He is one of several Transportation department employees who are currently pulling double duty – working overtime to help fill the gap caused by a statewide bus driver shortage.
“Our main priority is to get the kids to school and get them there safely. If that means that we need to hop on a bus and drive, then that is what we do to get the kids to school,” said Thompson. “Everybody on our team has stepped up to the plate.”
“I have to give kudos to my drivers, my mechanics, my dispatchers and my supervisors because they are the ones that pull it off every day,” said BVSD Interim Transportation Director Anthony Skala.
Thompson and his colleagues are happy to help, but admit it takes a toll.
“Trying to remember where you left off is the toughest part, plus you have to switch gears and remember all of the rules of the road when you’re driving,” said Thompson.
The bus driver shortage is nothing new
As the economy improved five years ago, drivers were naturally tempted by more lucrative opportunities. BVSD and other school districts have tried to stay competitive by hiking wages, but there are only so many people in the market, so retaining drives has continued to be a difficult prospect for many organizations. As news articles show, the tug-of-war eventually often ends up hurting riders the most.
Recruitment remains a priority for BVSD, while managing the crisis with the staff we have.
Boulder Valley School District is continuing to recruit and train drivers in hopes of creating a buffer, but things have remained tight.
So far, BVSD’s transportation dispatchers have been able to coordinate existing staff to fill in for drivers who are out, avoiding the impacts faced by several other Front Range organizations last fall.
A few times last fall things got uncomfortably close. It was a ghost town in Transportation, because everyone was out on the road.
“There are days when it is just Keith Putman, the Boulder Terminal Supervisor, and me left in the building,” BVSD Transportation Dispatcher Jennifer Donnelly explained. “If I have no extra people here – if a bus breaks down or something happens, if there is an accident – I don’t have someone to go out on the bus to go and rescue that bus and get those students home.”
To prepare for the possible eventuality, BSVD riders have been warned there may be delays if there are not enough bus drivers to cover all the routes.
“We have something in place, but we haven’t had to do it this year,” Skala said. “I think that is a real testament to the hard work that everyone is putting in.”
The competitive job market is continuing to pose challenges for BVSD and threatens to impact students in a few ways:
As BVSD Transportation employees are diverted to drive buses, it impacts tasks like routing.
“We can’t control when people are sick or have deaths in their families,” explained Donnelly. “All of a sudden we have a long list of things to cover and not enough people to do it.”
Over the course of the year, BVSD sees dozens of new student riders who will need routes, including students who become old enough to attend preschool, students with special needs who receive new accommodations as part of their Individualized Education Plan and kids that move to the school district. Route assignments and similar work may take longer if staff’s time is diverted to driving.
Restriction on athletics and activities
Some Front Range school districts have ended middle school athletics because of the bus driver shortage. While BVSD is hoping to avoid this fate by working closely with schools, BVSD Transportation does limit the number of trips available daily and has been forced to hire charter buses, at a far higher cost, to meet schools’ needs.
As mentioned earlier – in the worst-case scenario – there may not be enough drivers to provide normal service to and from school. If that occurs, impacted families will receive an alert letting them know their route has been delayed, which may cause them to be late to school.
Bus Drivers wanted
Again, we hope to avoid any of these scenarios by bringing more bus drivers into our organization.
If you have a good driving record and enjoy working with kids, please consider applying to become a BVSD bus driver.
BVSD bus drivers are paid competitively, receive benefits and get the same holidays and breaks as BVSD students.