The Jackson R-2 School District is currently in need of more than a dozen school bus drivers going into next school year and may have to stagger school hours or make other changes to be sure all students can be transported to and from school.
Associate Superintendent Keenan Kinder said the district is down 16 drivers compared to the end of the school year, leading to a large recruitment effort and the need for a contingency plan if the district is unable to hire enough new drivers before the school year begins.
“We have to have some idea of what we are going to do before Aug. 22, because that’s the first day of school, and we have to come up with it sooner rather than later because however it effects our buildings and our parents, we need them to know,” Kinder said.
Kinder said the district has already made adjustments to the bus routes in the past few years due to a declining number of bus drivers, including raising the number of students on each bus and adjusting shuttle routes, that make it more difficult to find a great answer to the current problem.
Superintendent Scott Smith said the district is looking into several solutions to the driver shortage, but the most likely solution will be to adjust the school day start and end times at various school buildings to allow buses to complete multiple routes in the morning and afternoon.
“We are not ready to make a recommendation yet because we need to do more research, but right now it is looking like we may have to make some significant changes to our schedules for next year,” Smith said.
Other options the district has looked into was increasing the radius around schools where students would need to walk to school and would not be picked up by buses or going to “A” and “B” routes where some students would have to get to school early and some later.
Kinder said the district had “A” and “B” routes in the late 1980s, but it required some students who lived further from the schools to wait an extra hour at the end of theschool day before the bus could come back and pick them up.
“We want to come up with a good plan that impacts the fewest number of students that we can, while still being able to get all of our students to school,” Smith said.
Kinder added that the district could eliminate extra bus trips including sport practice buses, but it would not be enough to solve the problem. “We ran 48 regular routes on a daily basis, eight special education routes and eight early childhood special education routes throughout the course of the day – plus countless shuttles to make all those routes work,” Kinder said.
Kinder said staff members have worked through possible solutions internally and have talked to many school districts throughout the state, but they have found that Jackson R-2 is in a harder position to solve the issue than most school districts.
“This is a unique district in the fact that we are so large geographically,” Kinder said. “Most of the large geographic districts in the state are very rural and don’t have as many kids. On the flip side of that, most districts that have as many kids as we do are very concise geographically so you can use buses for more routes.”
Kinder added that districts that have more students than Jackson usually have multiple high schools and multiple middle schools, allowing them to more easily split the district geographically and stagger school hours.
“They divide the district in half, running all the bus routes in one area before they take the same buses and run them again,” Kinder said.
Kinder said the bus driver shortage is not Jackson R-2 specific and has been felt by every other district they have spoken to, adding that Massachusetts had to deploy its National Guard to drive school buses last year and Kinder saw 12 school districts on a drive to Florida who had signs advertising bus driver openings.
“It’s not something we have created on our own, but it still leaves us the question of what we are going to do,” Kinder said.
Smith said one of the reasons Jackson has a driver shortage is that the district’s bus driver population is aging. “It’s an older population and a lot of them are retiring,” Smith said. “We have also had a few of them pass away in the last year or two.”
While Smith noted that the district is currently paying bus drivers more than nearby school districts, the job’s required schedule and the need to have a commercial driver’s license are limiting factors.
“We do provide CDL training and we will pay you for your training,” Smith said. “Once you take your written test and have your permit, we have trainers on staff that will train you in every aspect so you’re ready to take the driving test.”
Bus drivers must be at least 21 years old and are paid $43.88 per route. Kinder said the district has tried word of mouth, posts on social media and job boards, advertising, physical and digital signs at school buildings, media appearances and magnets on school buses to publicize the open bus driver jobs.
On July 9, the district hosted a “bus driver university” where prospective drivers could test drive various school buses. “I think a lot of people are intimidated by the size of the bus,” Kinder said, adding that seven people attended.
“Even if I drive a bus everyday, which I would, we still need 15 more drivers,” Smith said. “We need drivers bad. If you know anybody that is willing to get their license and drive, we would greatly appreciate it.”
Smith said the Jackson R-2 School Board will need to schedule a special board meeting sometime in the next few weeks to approve a new transportation plan.