Bus driver shortages for Arizona school districts are not a new problem, but it’s a challenge that’s continuing into the next school year.
Sahuarita Unified and Continental Elementary school districts are short on drivers for the fall, but neither calls it dire.
SUSD Transportation Director Mike Fiesler said they are short about eight drivers. Currently, he has 54 employees to cover more than 60 routes.
They have needed to use staff including transportation management or mechanics along with drivers to cover routes.
“We’ve been doubling up and using everyone who’s available to get what we need covered,” he said. “I think it’s (the shortage) a little higher than normal.”
In March 2020, the district had 52 drivers. According to SUSD spokeswoman Amber Woods from March to now, they lost seven drivers and gained nine.
Fiesler said for most of the year they were short nine drivers and on average are short four to six drivers.
SUSD adjusted a couple of routes, though none was canceled.
“We did need to absorb two routes into other routes during the course of the year,” Woods said. “Drivers are currently doubling up on approximately seven routes on a daily basis.”
The district readjusted its bus pick-up and drop-off times to a three-tier schedule in May 2020, to account for population growth, overfull buses and to to achieve greater efficiency.
Chief Financial Officer Lizette Huie said the three-tier schedule played a huge part in making transportation work over 2020-21.
“It really helped us. This shortage would have been more had we not not gone through the three-tier system this year,” she said. “Had we not had that we would have been in a bigger, dire need for bus drivers. We adapted and adjusted much easier not having too many kids on the buses.”
Fiesler said one of the greatest challenges in attracting bus drivers is that the schedule isn’t ideal for everyone.
“Well, the biggest topic to be considered is this is a part-time position for 10 months out of the year, with a run in the morning and a run in the afternoon,” he said. “It works for a lot of people but doesn’t work for a lot of others.”
Huie said they do have options for drivers, with full-time and part-time opportunities, as well as benefits and the potential to drive more when there are out of town events or sports events.
SUSD offers paid training for bus drivers, which averages three weeks to a month to complete.
As far as the fleet of 58 buses in the district, Fiesler said they pretty much have what they need. On average they replace two buses a year.
Though they have not cancelled routes, they are hopeful to bring on more drivers to staff the next school year.
“Being a smaller community, there is a great group of people here,” Fiesler said. “We do family things and it’s a big family oriented group, an amazing place to come to work.”
CESD will be short three to five drivers next school year, but Transportation Director Stephen Lane said he’s not concerned.
“I’ve had a good staff. I had a couple who retired and one decided to go on a different adventure,” he said. “We haven’t had the same issues as a lot of districts and have a good core of drivers. Moving into next year I’m just filling in the holes.”
Lane said the last couple years have not been a stressful situation when it comes to drivers.
Though COVID-19 brought challenges to his department, CESD was in-person all pandemic.
“Covid was a rough time but we all adapted here,” he said. “We had a couple drivers who were concerned like any other resident but we haven’t had any issues. We’ve been five days a week since August and all routes have been covered, no route has been missed or anything.”
Lane has 13 buses and will be working on a replacement plan for older buses next school year.
CESD will be ending routes in the Elephant Head area and Purple Finch Lane and Cooper’s Hawk Road areas this summer due to low ridership. Students who were on those routes can either attend SUSD who will transport them or need to find their own transportation to CESD.