Bus Driver Training

Sean C. Morgan

Sweet Home School District needs more bus drivers.

Constantly running light on enough drivers, its two mechanics, dispatcher and transportation supervisor end up filling in constantly, cutting into their ability to complete their regular work.

The mechanics, for example, complete annual maintenance on each bus throughout the year, said Transportation Supervisor Cheryl Hicks. They’ve got two buses scheduled for their “annuals” right now, but they’ve been driving so much, they haven’t been able to get to them.

Hicks herself is as likely to be found driving as in her office, and she has been busy training four new substitutes.

“There’s a shortage of drivers in Sweet Home,” said Supt. Tom Yahraes. “From my experience this is common throughout the state for school districts. The time we spend in recruiting and training, that impacts us.”

The district doesn’t have as hard a time filling other support positions, Yahraes said. He thinks the shortage is tied directly to the schedule. “It’s the hours, and the job is uniquely demanding.”

The job itself requires an employee to drive down the road carrying up to 60 children, Yahraes said. The hours can be awkward, with morning and afternoon routes.

A full-time route is four to eight hours, Hicks said. Quite a few routes are four hours, and “people can’t make a living.”

The district tries to put drivers to work elsewhere in the district when and where it can to help smooth out schedules and provide full-time work, Yahraes said.

During the summer, the district pulls in drivers to help clean the buses, Hicks said.

When transportation is not fully staffed or has just enough drivers, it can cause problems when a bus driver calls in sick, Yahraes said. “It really stretches our personnel.”

Four or five years ago, the Transportation Department had to split routes up among other drivers at times, Hicks said. That’s not something it has had to do in the past two or three years though.

“We’re making it work,” Hicks said. “We’re doing the best we can. They’re working together. It’s an awesome group of drivers.”

Sweet Home has 17 permanent drivers, Hicks said. It has five substitutes, and it is training four new subs. Each driver must complete a minimum of 15 hours training and then pass a test. Most drivers train for 40 hours. Hicks anticipates some retirements in the next few years.

At this point, all regular routes are covered, Hicks said, but one sub and one mechanic are doing routes regularly. One of the routes is because of a leave of absence, with the regular bus driver planning to return.

The district lost a few drivers when it switched to the four-day week, Hicks said, but she understands that a shortage started taking shape about the same time, four to five years ago.

All over the state, drivers rotate in and rotate out of school districts, looking for more hours, Hicks said. The job provides a Class B license, training in school bus law and regulations and first aid.

Some drivers go on to drive trucks.

Sweet Home has had a couple go on to long-haul trucking, Hicks said.

“We don’t have anybody applying right now,” Hicks said. The Transportation Department is accepting applications, and she invites people to apply.

Permanent drivers start at $15.50 per hour, and subs earn $13.58 per hour while training.

It’s a good position for a parent who wants to have time off when the children are off from school, Hicks said. That’s why she started driving buses.

“A lot of people would be good at this, but they have a fear of driving a big bus,” Hicks said. She used to fear it before she started driving 35 years ago. “I was afraid of driving by log trucks too.”

Today, “I love what I do,” Hicks said.

After training and experience, “you get used to it,” Hicks said. “You realize you’re in control, and your safe in these vehicles, just taking it slow.

All of that is not what’s most important, though.

“It is about our kids,” Hicks said. “You have to have a kind and caring heart.”