A lack of school bus drivers has forced the Cheney School District to switch to staggered school start times beginning in the fall so the district can run fewer bus routes with the drivers it has left.
“We did it as long as we could,” said Superintendent Robert Roettger. “We’ve been very fortunate here in Cheney to do K-12 scheduled at the same time, but now it’s just not feasible.”
The district had 55 bus drivers before the pandemic began. Some retired, some got other jobs and others didn’t want to drive amid a pandemic , dropping the number of drivers to 40 despite repeated attempts to hire more, Roettger said.
“It’s not because we’re not hiring,” he said.
The bus driver shortage isn’t unique to his school district, Roettger said. As far as he knows, most other school districts in the area are struggling with the same problem, and it’s a problem that’s been getting steadily worse over the last few years.
“This is not a new thing, but the pandemic did make it a bigger issue,” he said.
A committee met three times in June to discuss what times to have the various schools start and end. They tried to take multiple factors into consideration, Roettger said, including child care, athletics, extracurricular activities and student sleep schedules. The goal was to make the best decision for K-12 as a whole, he said.
“The hard part is, there’s not a perfect solution,” he said.
The size of the district complicates matters, since it doesn’t only include Cheney. It also includes Airway Heights and large chunks of rural areas north of Airway Heights and south of Cheney.
“Our issue is we have a 380-square-mile district,” Roettger said.
The district now has almost 5,000 students enrolled, which has added to the series of events that made unified start times unworkable.
“I think we’ve grown enough that it’s just not possible,” he said.
The start and end times for Betz, Snowdon, Sunset and Windsor elementary schools is 7:50 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. Salnave Elementary will start at 8:35 a.m. and end at 3:05 p.m. Cheney and Westwood middle schools and Cheney High School will start at 8:55 a.m. and end at 3:35 p.m.
The reason Salnave is on its own schedule is because of the large rural area it serves south of Cheney, Roettger said. It’s easier for buses in that area to pick up elementary, middle school and high school students on the same run rather than making multiple trips on the same route each day. Students will be dropped off at Salnave first before the buses go to the middle schools and high schools.
Transportation Director Ellen Holland said the district’s southernmost student lives 20 miles away from school, near Hog Lake, which is close to the town of Sprague.
The northernmost student lives 17 miles north of Airway Heights, which leaves a large area for buses to travel every day.
The district is currently creating new bus routes and the parents of students who did not ride the bus last year but want transportation this year need to contact the district’s transportation office at (509) 559-4523.
Depending on how the routes are put together, students who live the farthest from their school may have to catch the bus as early as 7 a.m., Roettger said.
“We’ve had some of those in the past, depending on where you live,” he said.
If something changes and more bus drivers are hired, adjustments will be made, Roettger said.
The district trains its own drivers and anyone interested in becoming a school bus driver should call the transportation office at (509) 559-4523.
Nina Culver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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