School bus drivers, board members butt heads over transportation crisis in Bethel district

An ongoing transportation crisis in the Bethel School District is due to a staffing shortage, according to Bethel School District officials during a school board meeting on Tuesday.

Bus drivers argue it’s caused by deeper problems, which are putting students in harm’s way.

Forty bus drivers called out during a “sick-out” last Friday, causing the school to send out messages to families, including, “We don’t have enough drivers to cover your student’s route. If you’re unable to transport your child, their absence would be excused.”

Following the sick-out, bus drivers wrote a public letter to the district that reads, in part, “Bethel School District’s transportation department is in a state of general crisis, due to compounding factors. Our leadership is floundering and our drivers are overworked. Frankly, our children are paying the price for it, due to overcrowding, constant change in their schedules and routines, and a multitude of safety issues. PARENTS SHOULD BE CONCERNED. Kids are being missed, left behind, and are regularly late for school.”

During Tuesday’s board meeting, Bethel School District Board member John Manning said the district lost 50 to 60 drivers since 2021.

“Something happened called ‘COVID’ and it threw several monkey wrenches in the works,” Manning said during the meeting. “While we would love to transport every kid, we have a work capacity problem. We have a shortage of an ability to actually transport kids. We’re just not having enough manpower or women-power to do all the driving required.”

The district is looking into three options, which Manning noted, “None of the options are really all that pretty.”

The district is trying to recruit more drivers, looking into the possibility of outsourcing bus routes or cutting some services altogether.

Manning also said about 150 students are not being transported due to the bus driver shortage.

“You try to outsource them? You deplete the community of our drivers, our families,” Jamie Roberts, a Bethel parent and truck driver, said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Now we’re supporting those absences and saying it’s OK? After everything we do to make sure they get there?”

Another parent said her 4-year-old was on a bus for 90 minutes because one bus driver had to drive additional routes due to a staffing shortage.

“There are deep issues in this district that are negatively impacting our staff and putting our students safety at risk,” Jenn Hanson, a paraeducator in the Bethel District said on Tuesday. “Our students should not be the ones that suffer because of the administration’s inaction.”