Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Amid a shortage of school bus drivers across the United States, Iowa schools have struggled to staff their fleets.
Iowa Pupil Transportation Association Executive Director Chris Darling said a shift in the state’s bus driving demographics heightened the issue. Darling said farmers and college students each comprised around 20% of drivers each when he started his career in the ‘80s. Since then, things have changed.
“There’s been a shift out in the farm area, where farms have been bought up by corporate farms, so there’s less farmers out there, and the farmers that are out there are farming a great deal of land and don’t have time to come in and drive,” he said. “With the way loans work for college students, they have a lot more money than I had when I went to school, and they don’t come and do those part-time jobs like they used to.”
Darling said that trend was likely irreversible.
“Right now it’s going to be hard to bring those retired ones back, and we’ll never get the farmers back because the dynamics have changed in agriculture,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ll get the college students back because the loans are there and they believe they have a lot of money until they have to pay it back.”
With family farmers and college students out of the picture, Darling said districts had to draw from a shrinking pool of community members.
A shorter-term but equally troubling trend exists with retired people: many drove buses for supplementary income before the pandemic changed their perspective.
“I know several drivers here in Iowa for the fact that they just don’t want to catch COVID, they’re staying home,” he said. “And when you’re around children, you’ve got kids coming in from a lot of households … from all over the community, so you’re at an increased chance of contracting COVID. For your retired people, they don’t want to take that chance.”
Darling said the impacts of the driver shortage varied between rural and urban communities, but had equal magnitude. In bigger cities, the main problem is worker retention.
“Once you get a driver trained and hired, there aren’t as many opportunities for employment in a small community, so drivers tend to stay with you longer,” he said. “Once a driver is trained by a school district, they get their CDL and they become valuable. (In larger communities) districts will put a lot of money and time into training someone, and then lose them to somebody with full time and benefits.”
For rural areas like Southeast Iowa, the shortage manifests as an inability to find drivers in the first place.
“In smaller communities, they have a smaller work force, so they have a difficult time attracting people to their school district,” Darling said. “It goes back and forth.”
Schools across the state are experimenting with solutions to the shortage that best fit their communities. Darling said several districts in northern Iowa were cross-training building staff like custodians to drive buses; West Des Moines is offering its health care plan to drivers; many schools have raised route and activity driver pay.
Southeast Iowa is no different, with each district getting creative in the search for its own solution to the ongoing issue.
Henry County getting by as best it can
For Mt. Pleasant, the goal has been to recruit people for the job, year-round.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Mt. Pleasant Superintendent John Henriksen said. “Our director of transportation is recruiting all the time. He has a number of different contacts. It’s a really good job for someone that is retired and just wants to work a few hours a day. The compensation is really good. Ted Carlson, our Director of Transportation, he’s always actively recruiting people to those positions.”
They currently have drivers that have been with them for both a long period of time and a short time.
“We have a number of drivers who have literally worked with us for decades,” Henriksen said. “They’ve been with us for a long time. We have another young man who just started driving for us because he’s taking a year off of school. We have been fortunate, but I’m not going to say that we have been flush with bus drivers because we’re not, but we’ve been able to meet our need.”
New London is one of the school districts that has struggled to find drivers.
“At the end of last school year we had zero bus drivers,” Superintendent Chad Wahls said. “One retired, and one had to step down due to health reasons, and one left to pursue a coffee truck career.”
New London currently has a $1,000 sign on bonus for full-time drivers, according to Wahls. They could get $500 on Jan. 1, and June 1 if they haven't exceeded their leave that is provided.
Part-time drivers get a $500 bonus if they complete more than 15 trips and didn’t turn down more than two requests by the transportation director.
Regular route drivers get paid for both a.m. and p.m. routes along with their first hour as route pay and then hourly pay following that, including sporting events. If the trip is longer than five hours, then they get $7.50 toward a meal too.
Sub drivers get the 1st hour of route pay for a trip and then hourly wages after that.
WACO has managed to keep things together, according to Superintendent Ken Crawford.
“WACO has been doing extremely well so far,” Crawford said. “We contract with Washington and have been able to get the bus drivers we need from Washington. There has not come to me any scenarios of ‘We can’t go on a trip because we don’t have a driver.’”
Compare that to Winfield-Mt. Union, which is getting by on a day-by-day basis.
“Winfield Mt. Union is getting by with substitute drivers for now,” Superintendent Jeff Maeder said. “It’s day to day, and a constant concern if we’ll have coverage. We have a few people who are working on getting their license.”
Maeder says that they’ve had to combine routes a few times, and it’s a process trying to get licenses.
“We’ve had to combine routes a few times so far this year. There’s also at least a two to three week lead time at the Department of Transportation locations that do school bus driver licensing. If the driver doesn’t pass, it’s at least another two weeks until they can get back for another try.”
Their hourly pay has increased over the past year. They’re now offering a $500 signing bonus.
Washington County not as bad as it could be, not great either
Washington County’s school transportation officials say they have not yet hit a wall, but the brink is too close for comfort.
“We basically know we have to go day-by-day, there’s not anything where I can feel certain and say ‘Oh yeah, we’re sitting fine,’” said Mid-Prairie Transportation Director Teresa Hartley. “We have had days where we’ve had nobody and we’ve had to get creative and how we can make it work.”
Those creative solutions range from shuffling personnel to drawing from other vehicles.
“I have to go through every driver that has a CDL, and if we can find someone to come in, some of our subs don’t know all the routes … we have to adjust,” Hartley said. “Another situation would be to get a bus that’s out for activities, pull them back, and give the activities some vans so that the coaches can drive vans and I have a driver.
“Another situation could be we need to combine a route,” she continued. “Is there a longer route that can take on a shorter route to still hit the time limit. It’s just a puzzle every day.”
Washington School District Transportation Director Woody Hardin said the schools faced similar problems, owing mostly to a shortage of substitute drivers. When the going gets tough, he and some less conventional transportation staff have to step in.
“Myself, my mechanic, another district staff member that has their license and then other subs: we just move people around where we need to, to get things covered,” he said. “We spend many hours a day brainstorming on how to cover all of our routes and all of our trips to make everything work.”
Washington has not yet had to make cancellations due to transport shortages, but Hardin worried about ongoing trends.
“There has been a bus driver shortage for the last 10 years, and there’s been all kinds of reasons,” he said. “Everything from not enough hours, not enough pay, no benefits, there’s a variety of reasons.”
At Highland, the worst bus driver shortage in memory happened last year.
“When COVID really hit in November of 2020, we lost three bus drivers and we couldn’t run routes,” Highland superintendent Ken Crawford said. “That is a real scenario, that we had no substitutes, no backups, it was just those drivers or nobody could go.”
That has been largely corrected this year. The district today has all six of its routes covered, and has hired four drivers for this school year.
“I did some work over the summer to get some more drivers, and working with getting a couple new drivers certified, and we’re OK for right now,” Highland Transportation Director Traci Vonnahme said. “I had all but driver return this year, so I got lucky there and I was able to find a replacement for that route. And I had a couple that drove for me last year and subbed for me.”
Still, Vonnahme stressed that the situation was far from perfect.
“We’re not set by any means, it’s still a struggle if, say, I need a morning sub,” she said. “Considering other districts, we only have six routes to fill … I’ve just gotten lucky this year, last year I was not lucky at all.”
Vonnahme said many of the district’s drivers were full-time school staff, including two teachers and an operations supervisor.
The Highland school board moved to compensate by offering its activity drivers more competitive rates at a meeting in August. Vonnahme said the decision helped seal the deal for some drivers.
“I think it has helped,” she said. “I know other districts offered bonuses and that sort of stuff, we haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
Despite the challenges, transportation officials said they remained passionate about their jobs.
“Bus driving is very rewarding work,” Hardin said. “Being able to see students every day, and to watch them grow over the years and change as they go through school is rewarding. And being able to impact their life every days in ways they probably don’t even realize. You’re a big part of their school life whether they realize it or not.”
Fairfield officials see limited results despite incentives
School officials in Jefferson and Van Buren counties are reporting their own shortages of bus drivers, and are racking their brains for solutions.
Kevin Hatfield, superintendent of Pekin and Sigourney school districts, said his schools have raised hourly pay for bus drivers and given signing bonuses to new drivers. For instance, Sigourney now offers its drivers paid single insurance and a sign-on bonus of $1,500, with $750 coming immediately and the other half paid after 18 months.
“Naturally, the safe transportation of our students is a top priority,” Hatfield said. “We are grateful for the great efforts our drivers make each and every day.”
Fairfield Community School District Superintendent Laurie Noll said her district can always use more drivers, and that it never has enough substitute drivers. The school’s transportation director, Mark Branch, said the district employs 16 regular drivers and three substitute drivers. He’s hoping to hire a couple more subs.
“Some days when we have three activity trips, and one or two drivers out, we’re in a really bad pinch,” Branch said.
Branch said the limited the supply of drivers was difficult to understand given the fairly high hourly pay. For instance, the district has been advertising for substitute drivers with a starting pay of $42.12 per route (morning or afternoon). Drivers work 1.5 hours in the morning and 1.5 hours in the afternoon, coming out to just over $28 an hour.
Branch said a person could make more money driving a bus for three hours than working all day for a fast-food restaurant. Not only that, but the life of a bus driver has gotten much easier in Fairfield with the adoption of Ride 360, a GPS that tells drivers all their turns and where the bus stops are. “It’s one less thing for the bus drivers to worry about,” Branch said.
Branch said he suspects that one reason bus drivers are scarce is the growing regulations involved in becoming one. He said some people are intimidated by the licenses and endorsements necessary to drive a school bus. He noted that drivers need to pass more tests today than when he started in school transportation 20 years ago.
A few Fairfield school staff members have CDL licenses, and Branch has called upon them to drive a bus. He calls them his “emergency subs” because he doesn’t want to pull them off their jobs, but he’s had to rely on them more and more, two to three times per week during the peak sports seasons when so many teams need transportation.
Jeremy Hissem, Van Buren County School Superintendent, said his district is two drivers short of being fully staffed. To make up for the shortage, the transportation director and a member of the maintenance staff have to drive a route every day.
“We typically like to have the two of them be able to sub as needed, but this year they have daily routes,” Hissem said. “Every day, we are a bus driver away from having to come up with plan B.”