Area schools dealing with bus driver shortage

OSCEOLA COUNTY — A school bus driver’s job may seem easy, but in reality the responsibility of driving children to school can be harder than it looks.

That could be the reason most schools in the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District are short drivers.

Reed City Area Public Schools has all of their 15 routes filled and has two substitute drivers, but is looking for two more substitute drivers, said Tim Webster, superintendent of RCAPS.

“When there are drivers who call in sick or we need extra for field trips and we don’t have enough subs, then we are scrambling to find drivers,” he said.

Webster believes there tends to be a shortage of drivers because of the state requirements drivers have to meet before finding a job.

“Drivers have to have a clean driving record, have to become certified, have to pass a drug test and also have to pass a physical,” Webster said. “They can end up paying around $400 up front to get all of these things done. This makes it difficult to find people.”

Evart Public Schools also has all of its school bus driver positions filled, but is looking for three more substitutes.

“It’s not an easy job when you have 60 kids sitting behind you. It’s a part-time position and there are no benefits,” said Al Knowles, Evart transportation supervisor.

Morley Stanwood Community Schools has been looking for drivers for most of the school year. When three of its drivers left for different jobs, it put a strain on the transportation department.

“We are short on bus drivers, but that is not uncommon around the district,” said Roger Cole, superintendent of MSCS. “We have had an unusual year with bus drivers. Three of our drivers resigned and one has been on medical leave. One of those drivers retired just a week and a half ago.”

Out of 15 routes, MSCS has only 12 regular drivers. While the positions are open, substitute drivers rotate filling the routes.

“Being a bus driver is not easy,” Cole said. “First of all, they only get to work about four hours a day and make around $10,000 a year.”

According to Cole, school bus drivers usually tend to be people who are retired, work from home or are stay-at-home parents. Drivers cannot typically get a second job due to the short time between dropping students off and picking them up again.

“People want eight hours a day and this is a part-time position,” Cole said.

Cole recalls a time when one of the drivers was sick and all the substitutes were already on routes, which meant one bus did not have a driver. That morning, the school had to call the parents of students on that route and inform them they could either drive their children to school, or a different bus could pick them up after it finished its regular route.

“Our bus drivers are great, but people want positions with more hours,” he said. “Sometimes as fast as we find them, they leave.”

Cole is happy with each of the drivers and substitutes, but a problem exists. When having substitutes cover a route, they are not familiar with the students.

“Sometimes a young student will get on a bus to go home with a friend, and they shouldn’t be on that bus, and the substitute doesn’t know they are not supposed to be on that bus,” he said. “That can cause problems when the students are not getting off at their own stops.”

Bus drivers have to deal with dozens of students on a bus, while focusing on driving the route, watching for deer, ice and Amish buggies and continuing to maintain a professional and safe ride for students.

“It takes a special person to be a driver,” Cole said. “It’s challenging for a full-time driver and even harder for a substitute.”

Big Rapids Public Schools has 13 different school bus routes. Currently, there is one open position filled by two substitutes who take turns driving the route.

“Everyone has a shortage,” said Mark Weller, lead driver for BRPS.

Weller has been a school bus driver since 1998 and has been driving the same bus route for 12 years.

“It’s not an easy job. There are lots of responsibilities, but I love my job,” he said.

A large responsibility Weller believes bus drivers have is maintaining a safe environment for students.

“There is a lot going on and you have to be on top of things 100 percent of the time,” he said. “Sometimes there are up to 70 kids on the bus and they are all looking at the back of your head. You have to be able to deal with the job emotionally and physically.”

Chippewa Hills School District also is short one driver out of 26 routes.

“It’s a very difficult job,” said Jack Williams, CHSD transportation director. “Drivers start their day at 5:30 a.m., perform a bus inspection and then have to drive their routes until about 8 a.m. The drivers have to be back at about 2 p.m. and finish around 4:30. It’s a long day.”

Williams also mentioned the state requires training to become a licensed school bus driver.

“It’s a lengthy process,” he said. “Drivers have to take a written test, training and a third-party road test, which can be difficult because the state continues to change regulations.”