Bus driver bust: Schools deal with shortage behind wheel | TheUnion.com

Bus driver bust: Schools deal with shortage behind wheel

On an ordinary weekday, Betsi Gillum, gets up at 4:30 in the morning. She finishes her chores, feeds her pets and drives more than 20 miles from Brown’s Valley to get to work at Durham School Services in Grass Valley.

A school bus driver for the past 15 years, Gillum’s early morning rounds begin at 6:55 a.m. When she’s done with that around eight, she works at Durham for a few hours during the day. Her afternoon round starts at 2 p.m. and usually gets over by 4:30.

It’s a job with a modest pay, but involving a lot of responsibilities.

And with time, it’s a job for which less and less people are applying. No doubt, the Nevada County school district is managing with the bare minimum of school bus drivers to meet the very basic needs of transporting students to and from schools.

“It is a supply and demand issue,” said Terry McAteer, Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. “The problem is that in the tight school budget, we are trying not to add costs. We are trying to keep the costs down.

“These are low paying jobs. And they are part-time jobs too, which makes it more difficult to fill.”

According to Jim Henry, operation supervisor at Durham School Services, the average amount of hours a school bus driver works is five to five and a half per day.

“If we paid everybody for eight hours, then that would make it easier,” he added. “There would probably be more people who would be interested. But that expense would have to be passed on to the school district.”

The Durham School Services provides transport to the five largest school districts in Nevada County out of a total of 10: the Nevada City school district, the Grass Valley school district, the Nevada Joint Union High School district, the Pleasant Ridge Union school district, and the Twin Ridges school district. There are approximately 53 drivers in Grass Valley, Henry said.

The criteria an applicant must meet to become a school bus driver adds to the problem of finding the right person.

“They need to have a good driving record. There’s a background check with the department of justice and we have a drug and alcohol test,” Henry said. “It takes a special person to be a school bus driver because not only do they have to fulfill the criteria, they have to get along with the kids.”

“Children will give you a trial by fire kind of thing,” Gillum said. “They will test you. You just have to learn to make them understand that you have rules and they have rules and they need to follow those rules.”

The lack of a sufficient pool of bus drivers, in a way, affects school activities, McAteer suggested.

“We can’t take field trips outside the county,” McAteer said. “The high school district is spending a lot of money hiring private bus companies because we don’t have enough existing bus drivers.

“For example, the football team has to leave at two in the afternoon and they drive down to Sacramento. But we don’t have a driver free at two because they are leaving to do their afternoon pickup rounds.”

The present dearth of drivers might even lead to a revision of their pay scale.

“We’re getting to the point where we are saying we may need to pay more to attract drivers if we don’t get many,” McAteer said. “(But) when we raise the wages of bus drivers, we have to offset that cost from the classroom budget.”

“There are so many advantages to it (the job),” Henry said. “You have a lot of holidays. You work to the school calendar. For people who want summer off, they get it off because the schools are off.

“Drivers are helpful in our education system. They are the first people the students see in the morning and can have their day started well by having a nice, good drive to school. It’s a job that is very important because they are transporting one of the most valuable things that people can transport.”

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