Like many school districts nationwide, nearly all Lamar County school districts are experiencing a shortage of bus drivers. The shortfall is hardly new, but the labor shortage has become another complication for a school year already troubled by the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of Covid-19, disagreement over masking requirements, and the challenge of overcoming summer and Covid educational slides.
The only fully staffed transportation department in the county is Prairiland ISD’s, a situation Superintendent Jeff Ballard calls “lucky.” For the past few years, the district has had 15 routes. All but two are driven by full-time employees, Ballard said.
“We have been lucky, we have a full staff of drivers,” Ballard said. “Substitute drivers can get tricky, but we do have teachers who will drive if we get in a pinch. Plus, our transportation driver is a full-time sub driver now.”
Hoping to retain drivers, Prairiland increased salaries this year. Ballard said another increase is likely for the next school year.
Paris and North Lamar ISDs also have been increasing driver salaries, with North Lamar adding about $2,500 to salaries this year in hopes of attracting more drivers, Assistant Superintendent Leslie Watson said. Still, the district is five drivers short, prompting a consolidation of routes in order to meet the district’s transportation needs.
“The last few years, the way we have had to accommodate transporting students to and from school when we did not have enough bus drivers was to combine routes,” Watson said. “So, we basically have to make other routes longer to absorb the students from the routes we have to delete because we do not have a driver available.
“The problem with having to resort to this measure is that it makes our bus routes longer, and it really crowds our buses to near capacity levels of students. Our school district covers about 48% of Lamar County and a little into Fannin County, so most of our bus routes take one hour to 1.5 hours in the morning and another one hour to 1.5 hours in the afternoon. We do have a few bus routes that take two hours, and that is a long time in the morning and afternoon that students have to be on the bus.”
Watson credited the increase in salaries for getting the district a few more drivers, but it lost two more drivers than was gained. Two more routes were combined as a result, and the district is now at a point where it’s hard to combine any other routes, Watson said.
Being five drivers short puts the district in a precarious position when any driver needs a day off. The transportation director is supposed to serve as a substitute driver, but he’s already driving a regular route because of the shortage of drivers, Watson said. North Lamar generally depends on a coach or other district employee with a CDL to help with routes when a driver is out, he said.
“Most of the time someone comes through for us, and we are able to run the route as planned. However, on a few occasions, when there was nobody available to run the route, we had a driver run their normal route and then that bus came back to the school and took those students home on the route that did not have a driver. This puts students getting home about an hour later than normal.
“If someone has a CDL and can pass a background check, we could hire five drivers today,” he added.
For years, Paris ISD has been increasing driver salaries and providing financial incentives for good attendance in hopes of retaining and attracting bus drivers. Still, the district is down eight drivers this year. That’s about ¼ of its normal driver staff, Assistant Superintendent Gary Preston said. Driver absences increase the challenge of transporting all students, but a few of the district’s maintenance workers hold a CDL and can be used as drivers on occasion, he said.
“We are always trying to recruit drivers. We encourage all of our staff members to consider getting a CDL if they feel comfortable with the responsibility of transporting students on a bus,” Preston said.
Over the years, Paris ISD has tweaked bus routes for efficiency to accommodate fewer drivers, but this year the adjustments were more significant because of the shortfall severity, Preston said.
Although Chisum ISD also is one driver short, its bus routes have not been affected, Superintendent Tommy Chalaire said, adding the district also has enough substitute drivers to cover for regular drivers who call in sick. Chisum ISD has eight drivers this year, down just one from last year. To help retain drivers, the district offers bonuses, Chalaire said.
A CDL and a bus driving class are required in order to become a bus driver.
“But a big reason for the shortage of bus drivers is that the state has made it very difficult for drivers to pass the pre-trip inspection part of the test, which has nothing to do with being able to drive a bus,” Ballard said. “So, a lot of people will not even try to get certified to drive a bus.”
To learn how to become a school bus driver, visit dps.texas.gov/section/highway-patrol/school-bus-transportation. Lamar County schools are in Region 8.