Ensuring buses are safe is only part of a school district's transportation safety equation. Bus drivers are another critical factor in getting students back and forth to schools accident-free.
However, many school authorities say, a widespread problem exists: A shortage of qualified bus drivers in North Dakota and Minnesota.
“We just don’t want to put someone behind the wheel of a bus and say ‘Have a nice day,’" said Bradley Bergstrom, Thief River Falls Public Schools superintendent.
The requirements to become a bus driver are stringent. Also, the part-time nature of the job and the perception that children riding the buses misbehave make it challenging to find drivers, Bergstrom said.
“We really struggle,” he said.
In Hillsboro, the school district recruits heavily for drivers, Superintendent Paula Suda said. Bus drivers include retired and current teachers, parents and school administration staff, including Suda.
The difficulty in finding drivers is not unique to eastern North Dakota, said Don Williams, director of student transportation at the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction.
“I’ve pretty much heard it across the state,” Williams said. “Most districts and contractors say they all struggle with hiring and keeping qualified bus drivers.”
Williams hears the same thing from school transportation directors in other states, as well.
“It seems to be a commonality,” he said.
Some North Dakota school districts have recruited drivers in creative ways, such as allowing mothers to bring their children along on routes. The children, who are secured in approved child safety seats, then don’t have to go to daycare while their mothers drive buses.
There are districts in North Dakota that no longer offer bus services for students, Williams said. Providing bus transportation is not required under North Dakota law. The school districts that don’t have buses contract with parents to drive students to school in family vehicles.
East Grand Forks has 20 drivers, 14 of whom are full-time, who drive the district’s 19 daily routes.
“But not every driver can drive both a.m. and p.m.,” Superintendent Mike Kolness said. “So we’re always scrambling.”
The district relies on other staff to drive a route if it’s short a driver. A maintenance worker, the district’s mechanic and its transportation director are all licensed to drive a bus. Kolness jokes that he might have to get his license, too.
“In an absolute pinch, we have a few coaches who have their license,” he said.
The job is reportedly often stressful and has odd hours, which makes finding drivers difficult. Kolness said finding drivers has never been easy.
But, at least anecdotally, it’s been getting more difficult in recent years. Farmers, parents, retirees and college kids traditionally have made up a large portion of some districts’ driver workforce. But a 2017 census conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture indicates the country has fewer farms than it did in 2012, and a study by the AARP Public Policy Institute indicates that Americans are staying in the workforce longer.
“I think some of the drivers that we’ve had in the past are people who’ve maybe retired, whether it be 55 or 60,” Kolness said. “And then picked up a part-time job driving bus, which was great.”
Bus drivers in North Dakota and Minnesota are required to have training and meet physical requirements. Under North Dakota law, drivers transporting students in buses designed to carry 16 or more passengers must obtain a commercial license with special endorsement from the North Dakota Department of Transportation, according to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. Drivers also are required to meet medical, physical and testing requirements for commercial drivers.