Eagle County faces school-bus-driver shortage | VailDaily.com

Eagle County faces school-bus-driver shortage

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” There was a time when the morning bus ride from Red Cliff to Minturn Middle School took about 20 minutes.

Now, Bob O’Riley says, his middle school riders can sit for close to a hour and a half on his bus every morning ” a restless eternity for pre-teens up since 6 a.m.

Because of a driver shortage, O’Riley’s route is much longer than it used to be, and he had to get a bigger bus to fit more students. He now has kindergartners riding with seniors in high school ” not an ideal situation, he says.

After filling his bus in Red Cliff, his first stop is Red Sandstone Elementary in Vail, where the little ones get off, and the high schoolers catch another bus. He doubles back through Minturn, picks up some more students, then finally makes it to the middle school around 10 minutes before the bell rings.

The elementary students used to have their own bus, but because there aren’t enough drivers, routes across the county have been combined and squeezed together. This means longer rides, daily delays, and occasionally canceled after-school activities, said transportation director Melanie McMichael.

The school district has enough drivers to cover these basic routes ” but there’s not much wiggle room. There’s always a scramble for back-up drivers when a bus breaks down, when they have a flat tire or someone calls in sick.

“When you don’t have enough drivers, we have to cancel activities, after-school events, and pick up kids later than usual,” McMichael said.

A few times this year, schools have had to reschedule or cancel sporting events because no bus drivers were available. This has especially affected middle school athletics, as high school varsity sports usually get first dibbs on buses, said Jerry Santoro, principal at Eagle Valley Middle School.

“High school takes first priority ” and that’s fair. But when things get canceled, we don’t really have a legitimate Plan B,” Santoro said. “The possibilities of rescheduling become very limited.”

Even high school freshmen athletes will sometimes lose their bus and have to reschedule games, McMichael said.

A driver shortage can also lead to late pickups, both before and after school. The problem isn’t as bad after school, because if a bus is late, there are teachers to look after students, McMichael said.

But if a bus is exceptionally late before school, and a child is waiting impatiently at the bus stop, they’ve been known to just walk back home to mom, McMichael said. This could be a big problem if the parents aren’t home or the door is locked, she said.

“That’s our biggest concern ” what if they’re home alone?” McMichael said.

Bus drivers are paid by the hour, which means between routes, when there’s no children to drive, during the summer, on holidays, on spring break, they’re not getting a paycheck. Many drivers take second jobs to pay the bills and have to find more work in the summer.

That sort of inconsistency turns many people away from becoming bus drivers, McMichael said.

Because of the shortage, many drivers are going to work sick, not wanting to call-in, take a day off and put other drivers in a bind. Things are feeling pretty stressful now, and the drivers are worn pretty thin, McMichael said.

To hire and keep more bus drivers, the school district recently started a new program which would guarantee drivers eight hours of work a day, all year around ” consistency they didn’t have before, McMichael said.

Basically, when they’re not driving buses, they’ll be doing something else ” lawn care, painting, maintenance ” whatever they’re good at, or whatever needs to be done, and they’ll get paid to do it.

“The primary job would still be bus driving, but the route is only a six-hour a day. We can fill in two hours a day in another position, helping at a school doing lunch line, doing custodial work, whatever they can do,” McMichael said.

Hopefully, this will make the job more attractive for people needing a year-around paycheck.

O’Riley, who works at City Market on the weekends and the summer, said he’ll be mowing lawns this summer with the school district.

“I love my job ” you couldn’t have anything better,” O’Riley said. “We can attract more people this way, it will help out anyone who’s living here.”

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.

Interested in being a bus driver for Eagle County Schools? Fill out an application at http://www.eagleschools.net, or call 328-4808 for questions.

Transportation director Melanie McMichael said the school district is now offering year-round work for bus drivers, which could include anything from maintenance to mowing lawns when you’re not driving a bus.

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