School bus drivers in high demand

Columbia schools see waning interest; hours and licensing are cited as reasons.
Monday, October 31, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:47 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 5, 2008

At a time when the Columbia Public School District has hit a new high in its enrollment — up 431 students, or 3 percent, over last year — there are fewer bus drivers to get students to school. It’s more a struggle than a shortage.

Blake Tekotte, the district’s coordinator of transportation, said it’s always a challenge to obtain and retain a full staff of qualified bus drivers.

“For some reason, it’s a little bit more challenging this year,” Tekotte said.

He said the hours — early morning and late afternoon — might deter people from applying.

Tim Reed of First Student Transportation, which works with the district to transport students and which hires the drivers, cited Columbia’s low unemployment rate and the job’s part-time status as reasons for the waning interest.

Reed also said there are a number of positions available that require a Class B commercial driver license.

“What we need in these positions are parents,” Reed said. “We need parents to come in to assist, and this will supplement their income.”

The challenge of finding and keeping drivers is a national issue, said Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, which represents school bus drivers. A large part of the problem, he said, is that driving a school bus is a tough job for what it pays.

“The hours are unconventional, the licensing requirements are strict and getting stricter, and it’s not easy to manage a bus load full of kids in all kinds of weather and traffic,” Murphy said. “Meanwhile, pay has been more or less stagnant for bus drivers.”

First Student, which is based in Ohio and has an office in Columbia, sets pay rates for its drivers. The rate varies from $9.50 to $14.95 an hour, depending on the region and the driver’s experience, Reed said. The company uses a unionized wage scale based on seniority.

Not everyone can be a school bus driver. In addition to needing the Class B license, drivers in Missouri must have a school bus endorsement — training Tekotte called more “in depth” because drivers are dealing with students and not with a product.

Nobody can drive a school bus without first passing drug and alcohol screenings and any required law-enforcement background checks, Reed said.

Murphy suggested districts look at how they can help other school workers, such as teachers, custodians and food-service workers, get training to drive a school bus.

“Doing this has helped address the issue of driving such unconventional hours,” he said.

About 24 million people — the near equivalent of the combined populations of Florida, Massachusetts and Oregon ride a school bus twice every day, almost always without a serious incident, making school buses the largest mass transit program in the United States, according to the School Bus Information Council’s Web site.

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