Licking County school districts meeting bus driver shortage head on

NEWARK ― The bus driver shortage affecting Licking County school districts has improved for the most part. But that doesn't mean administrators are resting on their laurels.

It's an ongoing problem for many, and districts have been attacking it by trying to attract new drivers, adjusting the pay scale, providing various incentives and even paying for driver training.

Health aide Pat Ramsey greets students as they arrive via bus for the first day of school at Newark's John Clem Elementary, on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022.
Health aide Pat Ramsey greets students as they arrive via bus for the first day of school at Newark's John Clem Elementary, on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022.

"The bus driver shortage has plagued us for years, but from what I can tell, this year is just a slight improvement from last year," said Heath superintendent Trevor Thomas. "We have implemented a number of measures to improve the situation.  We began by offering to pay part of the training costs for drivers who applied.  Then we moved to paying for all of the training costs.  Then we increased the pay for sub drivers, and a year or so after that we implemented a salary scale increase for the first ten steps of the scale, increasing starting pay by 10%."

The district has also increased sub pay since then a couple times.  They added a full-time substitute position last year, but were only able to fill that position this year.

Thomas noted that Heath's transportation supervisor, who also serves as the maintenance supervisor, has to drive routes many days of the week. "I’m grateful to Mike Whittington for all he has done to weather this storm and serve our district," Thomas said.

Districts are constantly looking for ways to remain competitive in the marketplace. "We have advertised a number of different ways for drivers, with limited success," Thomas admitted. "I am grateful to the new drivers who have signed on in the past few years, and most of all I’m thankful and lucky to have the loyal veterans that continue to serve us.  Our drivers care a great deal about our students, and it is a privilege and honor to work with them."

Seth Roy, communications coordinator for Newark City Schools, said the shortage does impact the routes' drop-off and pick-up times.

"Our drivers are doing a great job of covering routes and helping to get students to school and home safely," Roy said. "Depending on the daily needs, some drivers and mechanics may drive multiple routes. We hope to continue to bring in more drivers to help meet these needs. We are also in constant communication with our drivers and classified employee union to address concerns they may have, as well as to provide incentives."

Newark is working to try to attract more drivers through initiatives like the a Job Fair and other outreach efforts. The job fairs both last winter and this fall have helped to attract more drivers.

"Events like October's Haunted Bus Garage are one way that our drivers are thinking creatively to reach the community," Roy said.

Anna Davies, Licking Heights communications specialist, said out of the district's 36 routes, 33 are covered as they have made necessary adjustments to ensure all students get to and from school safely each day.

"This includes solutions like splitting bus routes between two to three drivers so the maximum number of students can get where they need to go at once," she said. "We are very grateful for the hard work and efficiency of our transportation department to meet needs despite the shortage."

Heights is actively recruiting, hiring and training new, qualified drivers.

"Increasing our advertising budget for hiring ads and issuing full years of credit for previous bus driving experience are two creative approaches we’ve taken for hiring," Davies said. "We’ve also contracted with an external company to provide transportation for after-school activities, so that we do not have to pull drivers off of their regular afternoon routes to drive for extra-curricular events."

At the end of last school year, Lakewood began an incentive program to help recruit more drivers. "This helped them compete with other districts that were paying for these costs as well," superintendent Mark Gleichauf said.

The program pays for pre-employment drug screening, T8 medical examination, a five-day pre-service training class, temporary CDL license, OBI instructor and school bus for training, in-services and equipment training, up to 40 hours of paid training at the current substitute bus driver rate, and the CDL Skills Driving Test and Pre-Trip Inspection.

"The last couple years we have also employed two full-time floating bus drivers that have helped us with day to day sub needs," Gleichauf added. "These floaters are typically on a route daily due to routine absences or shortages."

Granville superintendent Jeff Brown said his district has been proactive with trying to maintain current drivers, and recruiting others during the summer.

"Right now, we only have one vacancy because of a recent departure," Brown said. "We continue to get people interested, trained and licensed to make sure we have a pipeline of drivers in the future."

Being pro-active has really paid off for some districts.

"We are currently fully staffed within our transportation department," Southwest Licking superintendent Kasey Perkins said. "To ensure retention of our bus drivers, we revisited our pay scale and made adjustments in the fall to be more competitive with surrounding districts. We also added in two quarterly bonus opportunities for our drivers based on attendance and maintaining a no-fault accident record.

"The new pay scale and bonuses, coupled with the fantastic students at Southwest Licking Schools, have allowed us to continue to remain fully staffed," Perkins added. "I appreciate the work of our transportation department and the additional financial gains were well worth their contributions to the district."

Licking Valley superintendent Scott Beery said the district was greatly affected by the bus driver shortage the past two years. So they decided to take action.

"In June, with the cooperation of our Board, our new treasurer Andrew Douglass, and Mickie Archer, our transportation director, we came up with a competitive financial package that puts us in the top three in Licking County, and we increased trip pay as well," Beery said. "This has shown good success so far and we are fairly well-staffed.  With winter coming and flu season, I worry, but so far, so good compared to the past few years."

Districts will continue to feel the shortage, however, as they find ways to deal with it.

"We are starting to feel the pressure of needing drivers," North Fork superintendent Scott Hartley said. "Our outreach to find employees is starting to lose its effectiveness. At this point, we are looking at making some adjustments to our bus routes to compensate for missing drivers, at least until we can find some."


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This article originally appeared on Newark Advocate: Licking County school districts meeting bus driver shortage head on