Michigan schools suffer ‘critical’ bus driver shortage

By Hasan Dudar
Detroit Free Press

Short hours, split shifts, loss of benefits.

These are just some of the reasons school districts around Michigan are struggling to find bus drivers and keep them on staff, an issue that has been labeled a “critical shortage” by the Michigan Department of Education for the 2017-18 academic year.

There’s no hard data, Scott Little of the Michigan School Business Officials said, but transportation directors report difficulty in finding permanent and substitute drivers, something the Lansing-based group’s associate executive director described as a national issue.

“It’s actually been going in the wrong direction over the years,” said Mark Andrews, director of transportation for Dearborn Public Schools.

“We’ve been having more drivers that are either retiring, or they’re going and finding full-time employment, compared to the new drivers we’re bringing in.”

Andrews cited lack of hours, split shifts, more stringent physical examinations, and the end of pensions in 2012, as obstacles to attracting new drivers.

Andrews in Dearborn said sub drivers start off at $14 per hour, and once they’re hired permanently, they get $15.77 per hour. Their wage would increase over six years, eventually “stepping out” at $18.67 an hour.

The Dearborn school district, Andrews said, employs 70 drivers — with only three working full-time for 12 months and about three-quarters of the rest working part-time 10 months out of the year. Andrews said his drivers work about 30 to 35 hours per week and split their shifts — 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., returning later in the day for an afternoon run from 1:48 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.

“Full-time” can be somewhat of a misnomer when it comes to bus driving, according to Little, who said that drivers often would get full-time benefits working four to five hours a day, a practice that was expensive and hard to sustain as the economy took a downward turn.

“And from a funding perspective for schools, they were really struggling and so they, in many cases, I think, were able to restructure their relationship with drivers, and, unfortunately, it did result in loss of benefits for a lot of drivers and those full-time benefits,” Little said.

Dearborn has had to contract out bus runs to Trinity Transportation, a private company, said David Mustonen, the district’s communications director. Mustonen said he doesn’t envision the Board of Education privatizing the busing service. Andrews said Trinity contracts 18, or nearly a quarter, of the district’s 80 routes.

Trinity Transportation declined to comment in an e-mailed statement.

For some drivers, the fear of private contracting, is one of their main concerns.

“Well I don’t know, just the fear of being privatized because we can’t get the drivers,” said Brenda Fiedler, 60, of Melvindale, a veteran school bus driver of 17 years.

Tyron Davison has worked for the Dearborn School District for 10 years as a bus driver.

“My fear is privatization, that a company will come in and privatize us. We are a close-knit family and that might change things,” Davison, 43, of Detroit said.

Little said some individuals will use the school bus system to get their commercial driver’s license, known as a CDL, and move on to more lucrative full-time jobs in industries such as trucking or airport park-and-ride services.

“As the economy improved, these jobs weren’t as attractive,” Little said. “And one of the other factors that plays into it is folks will get their CDL — you know, license — in preparation to be a school bus driver and go ahead and leverage that in another industry and make significantly more money.”

That’s something Rhonda Lyons said she has seen in Wayne-Westland Community Schools, which she said pays for all the CDL training and testing for its drivers.

“Once we get them in the door, many times we can keep them, but … it’s the hours,” said Lyons, Wayne-Westland’s director of transportation. “Many districts, they struggle because they just don’t have the hours to provide for them. … They just cannot survive on what they actually end up making.”

Wayne-Westland is able to give drivers “midday work,” such as field trips and cafeteria and custodial duties in between shifts, which can potentially fill a driver’s day, Lyons said.

The majority of Wayne-Westland’s 76 drivers work full-time, eight-hour days, while the rest — about 15-20 percent — work part-time in a district that has as many routes as drivers but zero substitutes, Lyons said.

Lyons said that there used to be a 10 percent fill rate for substitute drivers, meaning a district with 100 drivers should have at least 10 substitutes.

Wayne-Westland requires its special needs attendants on buses to have a CDL, which allows the district to pull attendants to drive, Lyons said. Sometimes, Lyons said, office workers with CDLs will step in to drive.

“We’ve tried a lot of different ways to attract good school bus drivers,” Lyons said. “We just haven’t been able to keep them and now we are trying to figure out what that secret sauce is.”

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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