Who’s driving the bus? School districts seek more drivers

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — School is just around the corner, but some local districts are still looking for drivers to get kids there. Superintendents say this isn’t anything new; filling bus driver positions has always been tough.

“We have faced that for years, and it’s a constant,” said Evelyn Rafalowski, Sullivan County interim director of schools. “I think it’s pretty much true across the state. I hear it across the state, I also see it from other local systems that are neighboring us.”

That same crunch is being felt by Washington County, Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, Virginia schools.

“Some of our classified positions, I think we’re looking still to see how we can best fill those,” said Andy True, assistant superintendent of Kingsport City Schools. “We are still currently I think several positions short when it comes to custodial, school nutrition, our bus drivers. Those types of positions, it’s always something we’re trying to make sure we have as many quality employees as we can.”

School districts sometimes have to get creative to fill those gaps while they search for qualified candidates.

“We’re always looking for good bus drivers. Right now, we probably need about five or six to really destress some of our bus drivers who are picking up additional routes, and some of our bus mechanics are driving routes, and our goal is to make sure our mechanics can stay in the garage all day doing what they need to do,” said Washington County, Tennessee Schools Chief Operations Officer Jarrod Adams. “But first and foremost we’re always making sure to do what is right by our students and getting them home as quickly and safely has always been our number one priority.”

“Our contractors are very good at being ready for that kind of situation in that they themselves have CDLs (commercial drivers licenses). Generally, office staff are CDL-licensed and trained, as well as their mechanics in their shops, so they do have some that they can pull from. It’s not desirable, but it’s certainly something they can utilize as a backup,” said Rafalowski.

Other school districts, like Bristol, Virginia Public Schools, are enticing teachers and coaches to get CDL licenses.

“For those teachers and coaches who do get their CDLs, we are providing a bonus,” said Dr. Keith Perrigan, Superintendent of BVPS. “Our issue wasn’t just with getting students back and forth to school. We often had issues getting our athletes, our participants, our band members to the activities they were participating in. And so hopefully by getting some of our teachers and coaches certified with a CDL, we’ll eliminate some of those issues we had last year.”

Administrators understand that the hours are different, so they often look to people with more flexible schedules.

“Sometimes you’re looking at 6:00 in the morning leave time and you’re done by 8:30, but then you got to show back up around 2:30 maybe done by 4:30 or 5:00, so the hours are maybe specific to a certain type of lifestyle. We really have a great pool of retirees who are doing a great job for us who have a little bit more flexibility in their day-to-day schedules to help us out to help our students out,” Adams said.

As for requirements, you need a high school diploma or GED, a CDL license with endorsements for both passengers and schools, and you must pass a yearly DOT physical, drug screening, background check, and driving record check. Some school districts may require more. In Kingsport, you must be 25 years old or a minimum of 21 if you are an educator or have a military discharge. You must also have a job with a recognized school organization, with a state form signed by that district superintendent in order to start testing.

There are also sometimes maintenance requirements. Johnson City Transit hires drivers for Johnson City Schools. Their drivers are responsible for getting maintenance done and repair work, as well as making daily reports about distance traveled and passengers carried.

In Bristol, Virginia additional requirements include attending two in-service trainings a year, quarterly safety meetings and complete a check ride with a master trainer each year.

In Washington County, Tennessee pay is done by route. Adams said they pay nearly $65 a day per route and almost $85/day for drivers who do two routes.

“In recent years, let’s go back about four or five years, there was a great shortage, especially in Washington County, and we worked really hard with our county commission and our school board to increase the amount of money that our school bus drivers make. I would say Washington County probably has the highest pay rate for school bus drivers in upper East Tennessee,” said Adams.

Beyond resume requirements, administrators say being a bus driver takes something special.

“I would encourage anyone who number one loves children – I think that’s very, very important for anyone who wants to get involved in the field of education – number one you’ve got to not only love children, but teenagers. And once you make that decision, then if you have an interest in any of those fields such as driving a school bus, I would encourage you to start asking some questions and do some research,” Rafalowski said.

The role of bus drivers can also play a key role in children’s lives, as they’re often the first and last person from the school system to see the child for the day.

“Having that opportunity, that’s the number one thing our bus drivers say is being able to see those kids when they get on the bus first thing in the morning,” Adams said. “They’re so excited to be ready to go to school and to know them by name and have conversations with them about their school day, and then being the last person from the school system to tell them ‘Hey, goodbye, have a great afternoon. Can’t wait to see you in the morning!’ That’s the perk of the job right there, just being a part of the lives of the students.”

If you are interested in becoming a bus driver, administrators encourage you to reach out to the school district for more information.

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