‘We’re all in the same predicament:’ School bus driver shortage sparks action

Education

CARMEL — The shortage of school bus drivers continues to confound local school districts searching for ways to get students to and from their classes. 

Monday, Pike Township Schools announced a move to E-Learning for two days this week after 10 bus routes were impacted by a lack of available drivers. 

Ten routes were directly impacted last week, eight of them canceled and two delayed. 

Carmel Clay Schools has also openly faced school bus driver shortages, but their solution was markedly different. 

“We’re all in the exact same predicament. It doesn’t matter which school district you’re in,” Carmel Clay Schools Assistant Director of Facilities & Transportation Gary Clevenger said. “It was just a matter of the math and we knew that based on the number of drivers we had with the number of buses and routes that they could possibly drive for us in a reasonable amount of time… that this was the number of students we could transport.”

Before the start of the school year, Carmel Clay Schools knew they were facing a challenge, a shortage of school bus drivers to begin with, now amplified by lingering pandemic related issues. 

Their plan was to create no-bus zones in a one-mile radius around the schools. Students living in that space would have to transport themselves to school as drivers focused on students living further away.

“This is a problem that’s not unique to one or two districts, it’s not just here and there, it’s going to happen and it’s going to get larger so we thought. It’s best to get in front of the issue and not chase after it. Our plan allowed us to transport the most amount of students to school with the driving numbers that we had available. We may have been the first one this year to implement that, but I certainly would not be surprised if you saw other districts considering or even implementing that going forward.”

It came as little surprise then to Clevenger when Pike Township Schools made their announcement early Monday morning… but the problem persists. More drivers are needed. 

“It’s frustrating… and it’s hard for everybody, but we just had to take a realistic approach to what we were facing and understand that we weren’t gonna hire our way outta this problem… we’re still hovering around 35 to 40 short. We’ve hired approximately 10 to 12 and they’re in the pipeline you know since we started the school year,” Clevenger said. “It’s no small responsibility and it’s no small job… we understand that every day when our drivers come here and come to work. They know they’ve gotta be the best at what they’re doing because we’re the only job in the school system where if we have a bad day… a child or somebody else on the roadway could get hurt or worse. So we take that responsibility very seriously.”

It’s a responsibility some would argue is not worth the pay received, the certifications required and the part-time nature of the job.

President of the Indiana State School Bus Driver Association Ron Chew would have to disagree though. 

“It takes a special person to get behind that wheel every day,” Chew said. “It takes a very special person to be a school bus driver in fact. We can say what’s required as far as the classroom training, the driving and all this but it still takes a special person to do this. Therein lies part of the problem I suppose…”

Too few candidates are interested. 

“The shortage was already occurring prior to the pandemic hitting and then with the pandemic it’s really created tremendous stress on the educational transportation system nationwide, not just an Indiana,” Chew said. “The numbers that I’m seeing of driver shortages in some of the areas of the US are beyond comprehension. It’s a very serious problem. It’s very concerning and I’ve never seen anything like it in all the years I’ve driven.”

Chew has been president of the association for nearly 30 years. He’s maintained a bus route of his own for more than 40. 

“That’s what we gotta do. That’s what it takes. Because we gotta get those kids to school so they can get their education cause that’s what it’s all about,” Chew said. “We’re the first ones to see ’em in the morning and the last ones to see ’em when they go home in the afternoon.”

Some of the inherent stress of the job — experts like Assistant Professor in Business Economics & Public Policy at the Kelley School of Business Professor Andrew Butters argues — is part of the reason the job is viewed as less desirable.

“This is not a type of job that we can just sort of easily transition people in and out of that sector. That’s gonna obviously take some time and I think there’s still certainly several parts of the labor market that are still fearful of contracting the virus depending on the type of activity in the bus where you’re just gonna have lots of face to face interaction with the kids,” Butters said.

“There is no silver bullet. It’s still gonna be something that we’re gonna need to be a little patient on just letting the whole thing get to a new equilibrium.”

Regardless of the circumstances, Chew believes the children make the job worthwhile… but it doesn’t hurt when school districts pony up. 

“I think that’s a major part of it is the concern that the drivers have,” Chew said. “School systems are now seeing — and it’s sad that it took this for them to awaken to that — that drivers are a very important part of the educational process… a very important part and it’s time they get their share.”

Carmel Clay Schools approved a significant pay raise to their school bus drivers before the start of the 2021 school year. The largest pay raise they’ve ever implemented for their drivers and the largest pay increase of any Carmel Clay School employees. 

“We wanted to recognize the hard work that they do and recognize that we care about our employees. We want to keep the existing employees we have as well as attracting new employees,” Clevenger said. “That bus driver is a nurse and a doctor and a parent and a therapist and, you know, every possible role rolled into one when they’re with your kids on the school bus.”

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