Eagle County Schools considers changes to counteract bus driver shortage
For students and parents, this could mean different start and end times, fewer bus stops, further walking distances and more
In a typical school year, nearly 1,800 Eagle County students (and their parents) rely on the school bus to get to and from school every day. In order to continue serving all these students, Eagle County Schools is considering making changes to next year’s start times and bus stops due to a sharp decline in its bus drivers.
The district, which covers nearly 2,000 square miles, currently has 50% fewer bus drivers employed than it did two years ago. While this trend is affecting many school districts across the state and country, Eagle County has a number of additional challenges in recruiting and retaining drivers.
“It’s certainly a tough job and there’s some challenges there that make people a little apprehensive to even apply,” said Tim Owsley, director of transportation for the Eagle County School District.
In general, for all school districts, some of these challenges include the simple fact that driving a bus full of children isn’t an easy feat and that drivers often have to work a split schedule (driving in both the morning and the afternoon with a mid-day break).
Although Eagle County didn’t have the same pandemic-related challenges as other school districts — due to the fact that it still had an in-person schedule this year — there are specific challenges that come with working and driving in the district.
The school district’s fleet of 46 buses — currently driven by 17 drivers — drives nearly 500,000 miles a year stretching from Colorado River Road to East Vail and from Bond to Red Cliff. Within this large geographic area, drivers face a number of climate and road challenges to cover the district’s 48 daily routes (24 in the morning and 24 in the afternoon).
One effect of the pandemic that Eagle County is competing with is unemployment. At the April 14 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Philip Qualman noted that the additional federal stimulus unemployment benefits, which will be in effect until September, make bus driving a “hard sell” right now.
“The monthly unemployed income would add [an additional] $300 a week, so $1,200 a month to the unemployment benefit. This is a very good explanation of why it’s so hard to find people to do bus driving jobs, custodial jobs, food service jobs — anything that’s paying hourly in our community,” Qualman said. “At this point, with a $300 a week stimulus for unemployment benefits, a person who is not working is basically breaking even with what we’re able to pay in an hourly wage.”
In order to alleviate some of these challenges with hiring drivers, Eagle County Schools has implemented a number of incentives to entice potential employees. This includes the addition of both a hiring bonus and a retention bonus. According to Qualman, the district is also currently working on raising the hourly wage to remain competitive with other transportation services in the community.
While the district is going to continue to look at its compensation and benefits packages as well as ensure it has adequate employee housing for drivers, it is considering making a number of changes, starting in the fall, to compensate for the lack of drivers.
“I think it’s going to be challenging to hire as many drivers as we really will need,” Owsley said. “We’re going to have to do some give and take in order to get all the students back and forth like we need to in the community. It is tough to be in that many places at once.”
The first option being considered is changing bell times for the start and end of schools by level so that drivers have adequate time to complete their routes. This is something that Denver Public Schools is implementing next school year. Additional options include expanding the walking distances, restricting the distance buses will travel to pick up students and consolidating stops.
However, which changes will be made are not certain yet. The district will be having these conversations — both with the community and with the Board of Education — in the coming months to decide which course of action it will take.
“The economy is really unique for all of us that live here,” Owsley said. “We’ve got a very diverse county and a very diverse school district. And with the school bus side of things, we have to support the district in its entirety.”