There’s never been a better time to get behind the wheel of a school bus in Spokane.
Along with a signing bonus of $4,000, new drivers will make $17 per hour.
Durham School Services, which contracts with Spokane Public Schools and two other districts in the county, needs 35 new drivers.
The positions are part-time, with split shifts, but have the potential to be full-time, said Santos G. Picacio Jr., the new manager of Durham’s operations in Spokane.
“This is a great time to be a bus driver,” Picacio said.
Historically, that hasn’t been the case. Low pay and the life-and-death responsibility for school children have limited the job pool nationally and elsewhere.
Durham and other contractors felt the pinch of an improving economy, as bus drivers left for other opportunities.
By the end of the school year, Durham was running on fumes. Needing 158 drivers, the local operation was down to 140; office staffers filled the gaps by working double shifts.
“Right now we are in need of drivers,” said Picacio, who also works with the Nine Mile School District and Saint George’s School.
However, they’re not desperate.
“We provide such a vital and sensitive service,” Picacio said. “They’re not just bus drivers, they are the first people kids and parents see every day.”
According to state law, bus drivers must have at least five years of experience as a licensed driver of a passenger vehicle, submit to a criminal record check and complete a two-week training course.
Durham also requires candidates to pass a drug screening and have a “decent” driving record, Picacio said.
Drivers’ hours vary by route and location, but most shifts run from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Higher wages for bus drivers are reflected in Durham’s new five-year contract with Spokane Public Schools.
“The increase was more than we initially anticipated,” said Linda McDermott, the district’s chief financial officer. “We had to do the bidding twice, because of the responses we received.”
Durham, which just completed a five-year contract with the district, offered the lowest bid among three received this year, McDermott said.
Despite the occasional problem driver and late route, Durham “has been excellent to work with,” said Mark Sterk, the district’s director of safety, risk management and transportation.
“And they have a new management group that we’re very pleased about,” said Sterk, who noted that the district fines Durham $700 for each missed assignment or late route completion.
Technology also is driving up transportation costs for the district’s fleet of 250 buses. Each is equipped with four cameras, but the district plans to have six to help address complaints about kids being assaulted.
“And we get complaints about drivers, it helps us verify them,” Sterk said.
Sterk had hoped the new budget would allow a shift from diesel to propane, which could provide some overall cost savings. But so far that’s been limited to the smaller buses used to transport special-needs students.
Transportation for the district’s 8,200 students is funded through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, but is capped to allow discretionary spending by its districts.
Most have felt the effects of the bus driver shortage as the state unemployment rate has fallen from 10.4 percent in 2009 to 4.8 percent in March of this year.
Nationally, the picture is even tighter.
According to a survey conducted last fall by School Bus Fleet magazine, 22 percent of contractors have a “severe” shortage of drivers.
“We’re seeing some school districts having to cut school-bus routes or consolidate them, having fewer stops,” said Thomas McMahon, the magazine’s executive editor.