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

School bus driver shortage hits critical stage in Spokane

A student is silhouetted as they board a school bus outside of Lewis and Clark high school on Thursday in Spokane. Spokane schools will be conducting “rolling brownouts” with its school buses. The severe shortage of drivers has become so bad that the schools cannot meet their busing needs.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

The school bus driver shortage hit home Thursday afternoon in Spokane.

Ten minutes before the final bell at Linwood Elementary School, the intercom blared the news that Bus 152 wouldn’t be showing up – at all.

Dozens of affected kids were reassigned to different buses, but many were still stuck at Linwood for another half hour.

Speculation in the hallway was that the driver had simply quit – a reasonable conclusion these days.

The wheels on the school bus are turning slowly this fall because of a critical shortage of drivers.

In Boston and Baltimore, they’ve called out the National Guard to drive kids to school. Elsewhere, districts are paying parents up to $700 a year to drop off their kids.

Things aren’t quite that bad in Spokane, but local districts could face some tough choices if the driver shortage worsens.

“We’re facing the same situation as everyone else, and we’re evaluating a number of different options,” Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard said Thursday.

Those options include “adjusting some routes and the times students are picked up,” said Swinyard, who also is scrutinizing requests for “non-school-related pickup activities.”

Spokane contracts with Durham School Services, a nationwide company, to transport about 7,000 students.

Unlike Spokane, most districts manage their own transportation services. However, the challenges are the same.

In a typical year, the Central Valley School District draws about 10 new bus driver candidates and hires about half of them. This year, they got just one.

At Mead, officials have told families and staff that the shortage could affect extracurricular activities, practices, events and games.

“We certainly hope not, and we will explore all options, including use of district vans, charter services or similar options, before canceling an event,” communications director Todd Zeidler said.

It’s been a perfect storm hitting the school transportation industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the main culprit. Some eligible employees elected to take advantage of enhanced unemployment benefits rather than work.

Other prospective drivers, many of them retirees, are reluctant to expose themselves to potential infection.

“There’s a group out there that doesn’t want to take that risk,” said Chris Carey, who manages Durham’s operations in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Still others have quit rather than submit to Gov. Jay Inslee’s mandate that all state employees get the COVID-19 vaccine.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking on Inslee’s vaccine requirement, which extends to Durham. Employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or submit a religious or medical exemption.

“That’s the newest of the factors affecting us,” Carey said. “That also is impacting our current group of employees.”

That’s the biggest concern now at Durham’s Spokane office where two new drivers just qualified and another 18 are going through the pipeline. However, that will take at least four weeks.

On top of that, competition for workers has increased. Durham has been forced to respond with wages starting at $18.90 an hour and a $4,000 signing bonuses for prospects who already have a commercial driver’s license. Those without a CDL still qualify for a $2,000 signing bonus.

Durham is contracted to fill 105 routes. It currently has 95 drivers. The gap is filled by putting trainers and other administrators behind the wheel in addition to their regular duties.

“They are doing an amazing job, and they care so much,” Carey said. “It’s an outstanding group, and the partnership with Spokane Public Schools is very strong.”

According to Corey Groh, executive director of human resources at Central Valley, the district has found it “very difficult to replace drivers as they have retired.”

Groh also worries about the effect of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate on hiring and retention – not only of bus drivers, but other classified employees, particularly paraeducators.

“We have a month to go, but I know there are a lot of people who are looking to exercise that option,” Groh said.

However, the district is hoping to mitigate that potential drop-off with a job fair next month.

The situation is slightly less dire in North Idaho, according to Scott Maben, communications director for Coeur d’Alene Schools.

“Our primary concern is drivers who are out sick or in quarantine,” Maben said. “When we have more than a couple of them out, we are very lean. We had a few days last year when we were down to our last available driver to cover routes.”