Districts grapple with school bus driver shortage

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — According to Buchanan Community Schools Superintendent Patricia Robinson and Edwardsburg Public Schools Superintendent Jim Knoll, area school districts are being impacted by a regional shortage of school bus drivers. One man, Daryl Miller, director of operations at BCS, is taking on the extra task of driving a school bus to ensure students are transported safely to and from school, field trips and sporting events.

“There is a natural shortage,” Robinson said. “COVID-19 does not help it.”

On Oct. 16, Robinson posted a letter and a video to the BCS community asking for help in recruiting school bus drivers for the district. On Friday, the district will be down three drivers. The administration and staff have been working to reorganize the bus routes to accommodate being down to just five or six routes for the whole district. The routes then need to be divided up between the high school and middle school run, elementary and the pre-school schedule.

“Our goal is to continue to provide transportation,” Robinson said.

Knoll said the same pool of workers that generally apply to drive buses are finding abundant opportunities in other industries at the moment.

“The economy in the Michiana area has still been relatively robust for the pay range that a bus driver would be in,” Knoll said. “The RV industry is still doing pretty well, along with some other things in the area. It’s hard to compete with those pay ranges and meet all the requirements of a bus driver.”

Knoll listed off just a few things that are unique to the position, including being child-oriented, having a commercial drivers license and having a willingness to take on the COVID-19 precaution protocols now in place on school buses and in schools.

Miller said he has seen the BCS transportation routes go from nearing 10 routes when he started with the schools seven years ago, to now nearly half that.

On top of his duties as director of operations, where he spends his days ensuring the school buses themselves are working mechanically or transporting them to a shop when they need larger repairs, he is also in charge of custodial services and all the maintenance for the school district’s four buildings and athletic grounds.

Recently, his work days have been beginning earlier and ending later.

“I’ve been driving every day, morning and night,” Miller said. “I would never want to say ‘sorry, I’m not doing that. It’s not my job.’ It’s that part of your job description that falls under the ‘any and other’ responsibilities.”

Miller, a father himself, knows how important the position is to safely transport children to and from school each day. He also noted how important it was to be that person in the students’ lives.

“You know their names. You hear about what’s going on in their lives. You are the first person and last person they see every day. You have the most impact in those kids’ lives,” Miller said. “They might not realize it, but we do.”

Miller enjoys being the one who says “good morning,” “good afternoon” and “have a good weekend” to students. He acknowledges that some routes, like the elementary routes, can be a little louder than the ones with older students. He also recognizes the role the bus driver plays in ensuring safe interactions for students.

“You’ll have trouble makers, but none of the kids are there to cause fist fights,” he said. “They get put in the wrong situation, and they don’t know how to react. It’s our job to make sure they move seats, so they’re not sitting by them.”

In all, Miller enjoys driving the bus routes, but has tasks as director of operations to focus on as well. The demands of a heightened cleaning and sanitizing schedule, for both busses and schools, means his custodial staff is working more as well.

According to Miller, if a house were considered to be about 2,000 square feet, then his custodial staff cleans nearly 75 houses each night after students leave.

“If you think about it in square footage, I have 12 to 15 people cleaning 75 homes a night,” Miller said.

The staff members are pulling together to ensure each task is completed for the safety of students and staff.

With the pressure on for Buchanan Community Schools and Edwardsburg Public Schools to find dedicated bus drivers, the administrations have revaluated their offerings.

Robinson said BCS has added sign on bonuses and guaranteed hours paid to help attract drivers. They have reached out to retired drivers, and even placed a school bus with hiring information out on a main road to make the opening more visible.

Knoll, of EPS, said his district is also still seeking bus drivers.

“We have a tremendous group of transportation people,” Knoll said. “They work with our students and parents so well. They are a big part of our success at Edwardsburg Public Schools.”

Both school districts are currently seeking to hire bus drivers. Information can be found on each school district’s website.

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