Story and Photo by Alice Gerard
Senior Contributing Writer
The Grand Island Central School District is actively searching for new school bus drivers. Finding these bus drivers, however, has been much more difficult.
For the first time, Superintendent Brian Graham said at the Sept. 5 Board of Education meeting, held at Grand Island High School, the district is paying for potential drivers to be trained to earn a CDL license: “That is something new that is just starting now. We need people to sign up to get the CDL training.”
In addition to the paid training, the school district “is paying for child care through Just for Kids for any parent with school-age children in the district,” Graham said. “That is something new that has occurred over the last year to try to entice more individuals to consider this opportunity as a career. For any mom or dad who wants to be a bus driver, we will offer free before- and after-school child care for that school-age child. If you have school-age children, that may be an incentive.”
Because of the shortage, the school district has contracted out two of its approximately 50 school bus runs, Graham said.
The shortage has been difficult for the drivers currently employed. According to Jack Burns, retired transportation director, the district is not doing enough to hire new bus drivers to alleviate the shortage.
“Last year, I came here in September, and I was curious as to why the board wasn’t interested in anything that had to do with transportation,” he said. “Look at all the issues that have to do with transportation across the country: schools trying to schedule bus stops, schools delaying school for a week because they don’t have enough bus drivers. Things along those lines. I was saying we need to start preparing for that. We had a year to prepare for that. I saw nothing from the board’s actions to say, ‘Let’s address the issues going on in transportation currently.’ ”
“This year, we’re contracting out school bus runs,” Burns said. “We’re having contractors do jobs that normally Grand Island school bus drivers do. In doing that, you look at the fact that we don’t have anybody in the pipeline coming in to be substitute bus drivers. So, by doing nothing, we have nobody in the pipeline. As we keep doing this and, as most of our employees are over 60, and as these people retire, we’re going to keep cannibalizing the transportation department until we get down to we have no transportation department whatsoever. The issue with that is it’s extremely difficult to run a transportation department when you’re that short-handed.”
The system is functional because of Alizadeh’s leadership, Burns said: “Theresa should be commended. She falls on her sword constantly for that. Because she does it, everyone is telling Theresa, ‘Let it fail, and maybe the school board will do something.’ Theresa can’t let it fail because, by letting something fail, we would be jeopardizing student safety. She’s in a catch-22 position with what she’s doing.”
Daniel Gietz, a retired teacher, who has been working as a bus driver for the past eight years, added, “I’ve heard, ‘Just bring people in and hire them as school bus drivers.’ The hoops you have to jump through to get your CDL license are unreal. It’s not just signing a paper and saying, ‘OK, flip hamburgers now.’ You have to have your physical. I have sleep apnea. I have to jump through so many hoops to stay here. Eyesight. Everything. Then you have to take the test. There are a couple tests. One is just to drive the bus. One is for airbags and brakes. One is for driving with students.”
Graham acknowledged the process of getting a CDL license can be onerous: “Some of the speakers talked about all the rules and regulations, the tests, and everything that it takes to become a driver, and they’re absolutely correct about that. There’s a lot of bureaucratic paperwork and hoops that people have to jump through. That’s not exactly an incentive.”
Another issue brought up is the amount of pay that drivers receive. According to Gietz, it’s not competitive: “Right now, it’s an hourly rate. Guess what they can do? They can go to Burger King. Right now, Burger King is getting close to what bus drivers are making.”
Gietz said he works as a school bus driver because “I was a teacher for 30 years. I do care for students. I told Theresa (Alizadeh, transportation supervisor for the school district), when she asked me to come in to cover for some individual who was having shoulder surgery, ‘I drive tour buses around the Falls. I lose $500 a day to come here, and I make $500 a week doing this.’ I tried to get people, even the tour bus drivers.”
He said he was told, “ ‘I don’t want to drive kids.’ ”
Safety issues were also addressed during the board meeting.
“I was a sub for the first eight years that I was here,” Hank Morgan said. “I’m pushing 70 now. I took a regular run because, being a substitute, I was jumping from bus to bus, and I didn’t know where I was going half the time last year. It was ridiculous. The last couple of years, I see a lot of safety hazards for these students. Staley Road is ridiculous. They blow your lights all the time. It scares me sometime, driving the bus. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to drive. It’s getting harder every day. I’m driving off the Island now, and it’s just as bad driving over there as it is driving on Grand Island, in certain areas where you’re driving.”
Gietz said, “You don’t realize what these drivers go through day by day. And then, you get a student on the bus who is taking your eyes off the road.”
Morgan said, “There’s so much pressure on the bus drivers right now because of the shortage. Nobody wants to take off. We’re all dedicated. I didn’t miss any time last year. But it’s just gotten so bad that everybody is at each other’s throats at times because of it. I haven’t missed very much time the whole time I’ve been here because of the shortage of drivers. I mean, it’s very nervous, and it’s not safe at all.”
Burns suggested, as a potential solution, going to a tiered system of transporting students to and from school: “The only way you’re going to fix transportation’s problems here and across the nation is by going to a three- and four-tiered system. When you see contractors getting $5,000 bonuses, while you’re paying $26 an hour, unemployment, and health insurance, we will never be able to fulfill our obligations to provide enough bus drivers to safely drive Grand Island kids. I think it’s our fiduciary responsibility to make certain that doesn’t happen.”
Morgan said, “I agree with Mr. Burns on the tier system. I think it would resolve a lot of problems.”
When asked about the potential of the tiered system, Graham said, “I think this (bus driver shortage) is a multilayered issue that is being seen across the United States. One of our speakers is correct, that a couple districts have gone to different tiers of starting and ending school, for elementary, middle and high school. The challenge that exists with that is that, sometimes, when you have three tiers, children are going home in the dark in the winter. So, you have to look at a tiered system very carefully to understand all the positive and potential negative consequences.”
No suggestion is off the table, however, Graham said: “I think we are totally open to exploring all those ideas. Also, health care. Right now, you need to work in our district 1,200 hours a year to earn health care. We’ll look at that, as well, to see if that’s an incentive for families.”
Graham said he appreciated the input he received at the board meeting: “We want to thank Jack and Dan and Hank for speaking. I appreciate those comments. I’ve been meeting with Theresa regularly, and we are going to be putting together some brainstorming sessions to see what we can do, even above and beyond what we’ve done, to make some improvements.”
“I just wanted to address your concerns,” Graham told Burns. “You had indicated that we hadn’t done anything. Actually, we’ve done quite a bit, and there’s more room for improvement. There are more things that we can do. Jack, if you want to join Theresa, Bob (Merckle, assistant superintendent for school business and finance) and me for meetings, we’d be happy to have you.”
“I’ll do that,” Burns said.