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Wanted: bus drivers

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Leslie Hammond greets students loading onto her bus before taking them home after school at Central Point Elementary Thursday.
Shortage of drivers being felt across Rogue Valley

Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry abruptly detoured during an interview with local media last week to offer a kidding-not-kidding plug: “Have we got a deal for you,” he said with a chuckle. “You can be a bus driver, and write for the Mail Tribune in your spare time.”

Once shot down, Barry said in mock resignation, “I need to work on my sales pitch.”

The plea was in jest, but the need is very real and being felt across the Rogue Valley, where a shortage of bus drivers has forced districts to redraw bus routes, ask parents for help and, in the case of the Phoenix-Talent School District, enlist the services of a charter bus company.

First Student, the bus company based in Cincinnati, Ohio, which has contracts with Medford, Phoenix-Talent and Central Point school districts as well as districts in Josephine County, has struggled to find enough drivers to meet the local demand despite throwing in hefty sign-on bonuses. An advertisement posted six days ago on indeed.com listed a starting wage of $16.50 to $18 an hour depending on experience, with a $5,000 sign-on bonus for drivers with a commercial driver’s license and all the necessary credentials. Those who don’t have a CDL license can still receive a cool $3,000 before even swinging open those door flaps.

And still, Barry and his staff had to scramble to come up with a solution after he was told on the last day of spring break that First Student would not be able to cover Phoenix High School’s midday routes.

“We went to other bus companies – First Student did that as well,” Barry said.

Eventually, Emerald Charters buses took over the necessary routes on a temporary basis.

Phoenix-Talent is hardly the only local district dealing with a bus-driver shortage. Every local district is currently advertising bus-driver jobs, and in virtually every interview during Oregon’s slow but steady reopening of schools local administrators have broached the subject.

Eagle Point Superintendent Andy Kovach, whose district is currently advertising a $14.46-per-hour substitute bus driver position, said finding drivers has been a challenge there since March 2020. Mike Meunier, Central Point School District’s assistant superintendent of operations, said when four drivers called in sick recently and there weren’t enough substitute drivers to cover the loss, routes had to be combined, which changed pick-up times, which confused parents.

“Oh, it’s terrible,” Meunier said, “and it’s not just a local issue. It’s a nationwide issue.”

In Medford, Superintendent Bret Champion announced last week that his district would be greatly expanding its in-person instruction starting Monday, but also noted an issue that would complicate matters: the district’s bus-driver force is down about 33%. Given the urgency of the changes and the increase in the number of students in need of rides – fourth-through 12th-graders will go from two days a week of in-person instruction to four and, a week later, five – the district’s fix was less of a solution than a temporary workaround.

“So we are making an appeal to parents that if you’re able to get your kids to school, please do, to make room for as many kids as we can get on buses,” Champion said. “If you drive around the valley you see now-hiring signs up everywhere and that extends to all of the positions we have in the school district as well as transportation and all of our friends across the valley. That’s going to be the most challenging part.”

First Student’s district manager in Southern Oregon, Andrew Good, declined to say exactly how many bus drivers the transportation service is short in local districts, stating instead that “our numbers are very fluid on a daily basis.” But he acknowledged Thursday that a shortage of bus drivers did exist, and not just in the valley.

He says COVID-19 – both the danger it poses and the school closures that came with it – is mostly to blame.

“To add to this, there is a significant bus driver shortage throughout North America in all school districts, and it is not unique just to contracted school bus transportation companies like First Student,” Good said in an email.

“As we know, the world is fighting a pandemic. There are vaccines readily available for front-line workers, which includes educators and transportation providers, and many of our employees have received the vaccine. We maintain the recommended social distancing between students and driver on a school bus. We sanitize the buses as required and do everything possible to ensure a safe ride to and from school. Unfortunately, with the delay of in-person learning, drivers faced an uncertain future, and some found new jobs that provided immediate and consistent work. Other drivers are not returning because of COVID-19-related health concerns.”

Locally, the question of why goes far beyond the COVID-19 impact, as Barry pointed out. Besides the obvious challenge of finding drivers willing to sit in a crowded bus during a pandemic, Rogue Valley schools are also dealing with the Almeda fire fallout.

In Phoenix-Talent, the fire impacted transportation in multiple ways. For one, according to Barry, 11 bus drivers lost their homes in the Sept. 8, 2020, blaze that tore through Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and parts of Medford. Seven months later, the district is still nine drivers short of being fully staffed.

“They tried to hang around and find some stable housing here or affordable housing,” Barry said, “but eventually they have to go to where the resources are, just like our families. That took a hit right away.”

To compensate, the district was forced to borrow drivers from other districts in Seattle, Washington, California and Bethel School District in the Eugene area. But as schools have reopened, those drivers have returned to their home districts, leaving Phoenix-Talent short-staffed.

But that’s only part of the problem. Additionally, 335 of the district’s 2,700 students were displaced by the fire and are currently being transported to and from school from outside the district’s boundaries. That matters because of something called the McKinney-Vento Act, an Oregon law which requires that school districts provide, among other things, transportation to homeless students to and from their district of origin.

As Meunier pointed out, that’s not just a puzzle for Phoenix-Talent to solve, every local district must tackle the issue one way or another because they all work together to ensure those displaced students get to school.

Central Point, which has 36 home-to-school routes and eight special-ed buses, transports 27 homeless students, of which four are from outside the district. In addition, 36 Phoenix-Talent students displaced by the Almeda fire and currently living within the Central Point boundary are being transported to P-T schools by P-T drivers on school days.

Sometimes, situations like that require a tag-team approach.

“So it’s not uncommon to have somebody displaced and living in Shady Cove, and we’re responsible for transporting them to school,” Meunier said. “Each one of the school districts has half the responsibility and we all work together, so a lot of times the kid might catch an Eagle Point bus in Shady Cove that gets them down to the high school and then we send a bus and pick them up there. Stuff like that.”

Combine that with the changing school schedules resulting from COVID-19 restrictions being lifted or eased, and you have a logistical nightmare for those tasked with staffing bus routes that don’t yet exist. It’s like swatting a fly with a drumstick.

Meunier won’t throw First Student under one of its buses, however, noting the lengths to which the company went last weekend to ensure Central Point students would have rides come Monday morning.

“Well, now that the restrictions got loosened we had to go back beginning this Monday to an elementary-secondary run because we can’t fit all the kids on the buses once they’re all going,” Meunier said.

“So, it’s required a total rerouting of the entire district, and the First Student busing department, they worked all weekend. They worked until 9 o’clock at night a couple times last week and I was getting emails and text messages from them on Easter Sunday. It’s a scheduling thing. You gotta route the buses, you gotta totally redo the routes in a different structure.”

Champion also touted First Student’s effort and creativity in problem-solving the bus-driver shortage, and agreed with his fellow Rogue Valley superintendents that one way or another, the transportation challenges would not derail the inevitable expansion of in-person instruction.

Come Monday morning, he said, those doors will swing wide. And the wheels on the buses will go round and round.

“We do have all the routes covered,” Champion said. “We’re going to be transporting kids.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.