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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shortage of school bus drivers continues as start of school nears

Busloads of students arrive at school on the first day of classes last year in Spokane. A shortage of bus drivers remains as the start of the school year nears. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Driving a school bus isn’t as hard as it looks.

Then again, navigating an empty vehicle in a deserted parking lot at Albi Stadium isn’t quite the same thing as carrying a precious cargo of children through the intersection of Francis and Division.

Or dealing with an ice-slickened street on the South Hill.

“It’s a tough job, but it’s also rewarding and fun,” said Rhonda McLellan, assistant general manager at Durham School Services, which provides transportation for Spokane Public Schools and several other districts.

“For these kids, you’re the first classroom of the day, with all these kids right behind you. You get to start their day off right and you get to end their school day,” McLellan said Thursday morning to members of the media.

On Thursday at Albi Stadium, members of the media were given a chance to test-drive the buses. On Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon, the public will get the same chance.

Once again there’s a shortage of drivers at Durham, which last year was scrambling to fill 65 jobs. This year Durham only needs about a dozen, though the company might hire more to take some of the pressure off its full-time staff.

The starting pay is $17 an hour, which will increase to $18.50 in January. All route drivers are guaranteed at least four hours per day – two in the morning and two in the afternoon, with three routes each shift to pick up students in high school, elementary and middle school, in that order.

Drivers can earn more by working field trips and charters.

The job comes with a 40-foot-long office and one of the most comfortable chairs in the working world. However, in front of the driver is a dashboard that’s far more complicated than anything in a passenger car.

“It’s easy when you get accustomed to it,” said Doug Johnson, a full-time employee at Durham who fills in for drivers “when there’s a need for someone to step up.”

Johnson, now in his 12th year at Durham, is the perfect instructor. In fact he taught many of the current instructors.

“You’re doing just fine,” Johnson said several times as he guided a journalist-driver along the narrow asphalt strips south of the stadium.

Coincidentally, in a few years that parking lot will give way to a new middle school, where future drivers will be dropping off and picking up hundreds of students every day.

On Thursday, however, the main challenge was to navigate the big yellow beast though a minefield of cones and tennis balls.

The lesson began with turns – big, wide turns that must begin later than in a standard vehicle. Otherwise, the bus will hit something or someone.

Pulling into a drop-off area is easy in a passenger car – not so in a bus, which requires a fine touch.

Next up was an obstacle course: tennis balls protruding from aluminum stands. The goal was to drive the bus through an ever-narrowing path without knocking down the balls.

The next assignment: backing up the beast in a straight line.

Durham requires a 90% grade to move on toward more instruction.