District 518 still in need of school bus drivers - The Globe | News, weather, sports from Worthington, Minnesota

2022-08-27 12:14:55 By : Mr. Jennifer Chen

WORTHINGTON — Bud’s Bus Service, which provides school bus service to District 518, has about 30 buses and five vans, but like many other school bus operations nationwide, what it doesn’t have is enough drivers.

“Even before COVID, the school district was experiencing shortages,” said Chris Kielblock, a manager at Bud’s, citing some changes in federal rules that make obtaining a commercial driver’s license for a school bus driver more of a process. “The shortage has just been really heightened since COVID and post-COVID.”

That process can take a month, if all goes smoothly and schedules have prompt openings for tests and a physical.

First, a person hoping to become a school bus driver must pass a commercial driver’s license general knowledge test, administered locally at the Nobles County Government Center. Passing that test doesn’t mean a prospective driver’s studies are over, however. They must also take a test in order to gain a passenger endorsement, and a third test to obtain a school bus endorsement.

While an air brake endorsement isn’t required for a driver, Kielblock recommends getting one, and that means another written test.

As of February, the federal Department of Transportation also mandated that someone applying for a CDL for the first time or adding an endorsement must also complete theory and behind-the-wheel training, the latter of which must be documented.

Kielblock hasn’t had any new trainees since February.

Prospective drivers must also have a physical examination, checking for issues such as seizures, diabetes, apnea and pacemakers that could potentially impact driving. Chronic health issues responding well to treatment aren’t necessarily deal-breakers.

Drivers then receive their CDL learner’s permit, Kielblock said, which does not allow them to drive on the job but does enable them to drive along with a CDL holder. That’s when the driver receives training for their pre-trip test — a test involving a walk-around of the bus — and their behind-the-wheel test.

Bud’s Bus Service will help prospective drivers fulfill their federal training requirements as well as help them prepare for the pre-trip and behind-the-wheel tests, Kielblock said.

Bus drivers must also pass a state of Minnesota school bus criminal records check as well as a mandatory Department of Transportation drug test.

Bud’s handout, “Steps to Becoming a School Bus Driver,” lists four things that may disqualify someone from becoming a school bus driver, including conviction of a felony, conviction of a crime involving drugs or an offense against a minor, conviction of a DUI and four moving violations within a three-year period.

Drivers also need to be 18 years old, but due to insurance costs, people age 21 and older are preferred, Kielblock said. It might be a good job for a college student, stay-at-home parent or someone who already works at one of the schools.

Driving a school bus is a part-time job, and as such, it does not come with health insurance and some of the other benefits full-time positions typically offer.

However, the hours are somewhat flexible, and drivers who want to drive only a morning, afternoon or extracurricular route can usually be accommodated.

In the morning, for a city route, work begins at about 6:30 a.m. and the driver would be back at the bus station by 8 a.m. Even a rural route would only begin slightly earlier — around 6 a.m. Afternoon routes start at 2:30 p.m. or so and are done around 3:45 p.m. in town and 4:20 p.m. or so for rural homes.

“If the focus is on pay, it’s great pay for the amount of time required to do the job,” Kielblock said, noting that doing a morning route might take just an hour and a half and would pay more than $40.

Extracurricular busing varies more, with the longest trips departing around 1 p.m. and returning around midnight. It would be more typical for a driver to leave at 2:30 p.m. and return at 10 p.m. for a game, though, Kielblock said.

And sometimes there are driving opportunities during the day as well, with school readiness and other daytime programs.

“It’s not only that the schools count on (drivers) to get the kids there. The kids count on them to get there, the parents count on them to get the kids there,” Kielblock said. “... they really have a valued role in our whole school system. Our school bus drivers are as integral to our system as our teachers are.”

Earlier this year, District 518 warned parents that it might have to reinstate a no-busing zone around all its schools for the 2022-23 school year if it could not find enough drivers.

Luckily, that has not happened, but in order to cover all the routes, every substitute driver Bud’s has will be driving buses when school begins.

“If I had three drivers come in today, I would have them driving on Monday,” provided they were licensed to do so, Kielblock said. “I always need one more. Even on the best of days.”

In recent years, fewer retirees have opted to drive a school bus as a retirement job, and some of the absent workforce might be a holdover from the COVID-19 pandemic, too, he added.

Some people who would otherwise give the job a shot worry about kids’ behavior on the bus, but that’s less of a factor than people imagine, Kielblock said. Drivers on an in-town route might spend just 15 minutes or so a day with any given student. Additionally, there are cameras in all the school buses that can help discourage negative behaviors and Bud’s works closely with District 518 when disciplinary problems do come up.

“I think in general we have good kids,” Kielblock said. “Every bus driver that I have values the kids that are on their bus. They want to see the kids get to and from the school safely.”

Drivers who interact with kids every day get to know their students, and some students really connect with their drivers, bringing them Christmas presents and holiday treats for special occasions.

“Our drivers are the first school interaction they have that day, and sometimes, the last one they’ll see in a day,” Kielblock said.