A big, old Thornapple Kellogg School District bus parked along the M-37 highway in a farmer’s field land is an attempt to attract substitute bus drivers to the district, a challenge schools across the county, state and nation are facing.
Shawn Hayward, transportation manager for Thornapple Kellogg Schools, came up with the bus billboard idea to try to solve his district’s shortage of substitute drivers in the 117 square-mile district. “The first five days of school I was driving,” he says.
Thousands of drivers pass the site every day on the busy highway, and the idea is working. Hayward has hired 10 new substitute drivers since the bus was parked with its sign on Sept. 15.
Previously he had one substitute for the a.m.and one for the p.m. shift, one for extracurricular and sports trips and one sub who was always available. The district’s mechanic drove when Hayward was in a pinch, taking him away from his regular duties.
Thornapple Kellogg isn’t the only school system struggling with finding bus drivers. “Most districts are short of drivers constantly,” says John Savage, Kent ISD transportation coordinator. Patrick Dean of Dean Transportation, a company that provides busing service for schools across the state, calls the issue a “national epidemic.”
Difficulties Thornapple Kellogg struggles with include some drivers only being available a few days a week and others who don’t want to run regular routes, Hayward says “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being a bus driver,” he says. “You’re going out on routes you don’t know, and when it’s dark, it’s hard to find the stops.”
A low unemployment rate in Kent County is a reason Savage thinks is causing the shortage, as it makes other job options more attractive. The Kent ISD transportation coordinator also says Grand Rapids area has become more attractive to families, making a need for more buses to get students to school. Financial troubles schools face make it hard to give raises and some have cut benefits, although Dean Transportation was able to increase the pay nearly $2 an hour, bringing the wage for drivers to $15 an hour.
Not enough substitute drivers means students get home later, ride times are longer and more students fill the buses, say school transportation directors. Hayward worried the problem would worsen when spring sports began before his recent hires.
To attract drivers, Dean pays the cost of training for getting a commercial driving license required to drive a bus. Efforts to find and retain drivers at Dean have included a summer job fair, which brought in 10 new drivers. The company is working with schools to get part-time workers who already work at the school, such as lunch aides, to add add bus driving as another part-time job. All employees at the company, even those working office jobs, have CDL licenses that let them drive a bus when the company is shorthanded. Patrick Dean himself even drives a couple of times a year when a sub is needed.
A Different Approach and View
Jacquie Fase, director of transportation at Rockford Public Schools, uses a system that has 10 morning drivers and 10 afternoon drivers. This creates a built-in sub list and lessens problems with filling substitute slots.
Another possible reason for her success in running her department is her exuberance when talking about bus driving. She calls it an “awesome” job and a “rewarding career.”
“It blows my mind you can’t get someone to drive a school bus,” says the former driver. “I love driving a school bus. You see the sunrise every morning. If you love kids, it’s the best job in the world.”