School bus

Students get on a school bus in St. Paul in September 2018. Weeks into the new school year, some Minnesota schools are still struggling to find enough bus drivers to transport kids. (Jeff Horwich for MPR News 2018)

Jeremy Olson has a skill that has come in handy multiple times during his last few years as a school superintendent — bus driving.

“I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a time in which kids would not be able to go on field trips or our sports teams wouldn’t be able to go somewhere,” said Olson, who serves as superintendent of the Crookston School District in northwestern Minnesota. He first got a license to drive school buses a few years ago as superintendent for schools in Underwood and Henning.

Olson said there’s an overall labor shortage in his area of the state, plus a statewide shortage of school bus drivers. And the sugar beet harvest that’s underway right now isn’t helping because substitute drivers are busy hauling beets.

“It’s every day, until my transportation director tells me he doesn’t need me anymore,” Olson said of his morning bus route. The transportation director and an elementary school principal are also filling in.

Palmer Bus Service is no exception to the shortage, according to its CEO and co-owner, Jenna Fromm.

“We need to get Minnesota children safely to school each day,” said Fromm. “It is important work, and necessary to our future.”

In St. Paul, one of the school district’s bus vendors told school officials just before the start of the school year that there were 10 routes they wouldn’t be able to service, said Jackie Turner, chief operations officer for the St. Paul Public Schools.

“That was unprecedented,” she said. “That left us with a large hole in our system, and so for the first several weeks of school we were pooling all resources internally to make sure that our routes were covered.”

Turner said district staff who are licensed to drive school buses but normally perform other duties were called on to drive. Meanwhile, the district tried to line up one of its existing bus vendors to cover an extended day learning program that was supposed to start next week.

“They could not. They did not have the capacity because of the state shortage,” Turner said.

The district was able to find a new vendor, she said, but more time was needed to sign a contract and train the drivers. As a result, the start of the extended day learning program was pushed back by two weeks. District officials emphasized that the program will end later as well, giving students the same amount of instruction time.

“It’s a situation that no one wants to be in, obviously,” said Garrett Regan, who serves as president of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association. He said while school bus companies look for more drivers, they’re doing their best to find efficiencies, like making an existing route longer.

According to Fromm, Palmer Bus Service explores all other possible avenues before resorting to cutting routes.

“Core value #4 at Palmer Bus is ‘We are a business family and we help each other,’” said Fromm. “On a daily basis our site managers work together with their teams of drivers to make sure all routes and trips are covered.”

Part of the process, said Fromm, involves staggering departure times for sporting events immediately following routes so the bus driver can transport a team. But sometimes this plan doesn’t work out, so students need to stay on the bus longer due to a reduced number of routes.

Regan said companies are offering a range of incentives — sign-on and referral bonuses, health benefits and competitive wages — for new hires. But it can be a tough sell. Drivers must have a fairly clean record, though Regan says it usually doesn’t have to be perfect. And in a lot of cases, drivers must work a split shift and don’t earn money during the summer and school breaks.

Fromm said her company has handled the shortage by brainstorming methods of engaging and retaining current drivers while keeping up the search for more drivers. As one method, Palmer Bus Services offers a monthly training curriculum that equips drivers with the tools to deal with potential challenges on the job.

Palmer Bus Services also partners with the Tri-City United School District, among other districts, on School Bus Driver Appreciation Day each February, raises awareness of the bus driver shortage with a summer program and rewards top performers with monetary awards and special recognition.

Finding qualified drivers is difficult, said Fromm. Most of her new staff came to Palmer Bus Services without a Commercial Drivers License, so the company offered training.

Fromm attributes the shortage in part to the reduction of small farms in the area. Local farmers previously drove morning and afternoon bus shifts, but that particular demographic of drivers has declined.

“We are also finding it difficult to find recent retirees who are looking for a part time job in retirement that gives them purpose and friendship,” said Fromm. “Many families with children also have both parents working full time. In the past often the at-home parent would work part time driving bus to supplement the family income.”

In District 196, which covers the Twin Cities suburbs of Rosemount, Apple Valley and Eagan, Karen Dayon’s career started as a school bus driver. She now leads the district-owned transportation department.

Dayon said districts that own their transportation departments have more control over the things that can make a difference when hiring and retaining drivers. Her district offers drivers health insurance, sick time and retirement benefits if they work 23 hours or more a week. And little things can also help retain drivers, she said.

“We have heated driver seats, heated wipers — because in a snowstorm that snow sticks to your windshield and your wipers. We have electric mirrors,” she said. “We try to cover all of our bases to make sure our employees are taken care of.”

Even with perks like that, Dayon said the district pays less per student on transportation costs than most metro-area school districts.

MPR News reporter Elizabeth Shockman and Lonsdale News Review reporter Misty Schwab contributed to this article. Reach Misty Schwab at 507-333-3135. Follow her on Twitter @APGmisty. ©Copyright 2019 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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