School bus driver shortage in Columbus, nationwide prompts calls for action

Megan Henry
The Columbus Dispatch
Shaunita Farmer, 38, of the Northeast Side, says it can be stressful waiting for her son Raheem Farmer, a third grader at Ecole Kenwood French Immersion Elementary School, to get to his bus stop in the evening because the bus is usually late due to a driver shortage that is  plaguing schools nationwide.  “If we couldn’t get the busing issue together, maybe the kids should have stayed remote," she said.

Raheem Farmer has been late to class at Ecole Kenwood French Immersion Elementary School on the Northwest Side almost every morning this school year because his bus is perpetually running behind.

He doesn't get home on time, either.

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The third grader’s school day ends at 3:30 p.m. and he is supposed to arrive at his bus stop on Tamarack Boulevard and Sharbot Drive at 3:59 p.m. Instead, the school bus has been dropping him off between 4:20 and 5 p.m. every day.

“It’s just causing me stress … especially because you don’t know where your kid is,” said Raheem’s mom, Shaunita Farmer. “If we couldn’t get the busing issue together, maybe the kids should have stayed remote.”

A bus driver shortage in Greater Columbus and across the country has complicated a new school year already made difficult by a resurgence in COVID-19 cases because of the highly contagious delta variant, fights over masking and vaccinating, and concerns about overcoming learning losses from the past year.

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“I feel bad because my son comes home so tired," said Farmer, 38. "He’s tired from the day and he’s tired from waiting and being on the bus for so long. He doesn’t know there’s a bus driver shortage; all he knows is he wants to get home.” 

Shaunita Farmer waits for her son Raheem, a third grader at Ecole Kenwood French Immersion Elementary School, to be dropped off by a school bus at Tamarack Boulevard and Sharbot Drive on the Northeast Side. A nationwide shortage of bus drives means he's usually late, which causes her stress "because you don’t know where your kid is.”

Last school year, there were 314,920 school bus drivers nationally — a nearly 15% decrease from the previous year, according to a May 2020 report by the U.S.  Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are currently 18,349 active school bus drivers in Ohio as of Sept. 17, according to the state Department of Education. The department said they did not have figures for previous years.

In a new nationwide survey, half of the 1,500 school transportation coordinators who responded described their bus driver shortages as either "severe" or "desperate." And roughly two-thirds of respondents indicated that the bus driver shortage is their number one problem or concern.

“School bus drivers are an integral part of the education process,” said Steve Simmons, president of the New York-based National Association of Pupil Transportation. “Without the bus drivers bringing the kids to school, it would be hard for many people … to get their students to school.”

A school bus drives north on Tamarack Boulevard on the Northeast Side. Bus driver shortages are the latest challenge hitting schools in Greater Columbus and across the country.

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The bus driver shortage has been ongoing for at least the past two decades, with many districts and bus companies dealing with an aging workforce even before the pandemic hit, said Simmons, who was the Columbus City Schools transportation director for more than a decade.

But as with most things, COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem, he said. Among other effects, some aging drivers, who are more at risk for getting sickened by COVID-19, have retired or found other jobs.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said schools should talk with his office if they're having busing problems and he will see what the state can do.

“We need to understand directly from the schools exactly what the problem is and what their situation is in their school,” DeWine said.

DeWine hasn’t ruled out deploying the National Guard to help, as his counterpart in Massachusetts did earlier this week. DeWine called on the National Guard several times during the pandemic to help with food banks, testing, vaccine administration and more.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker's office said Monday that as many as 250 National Guard members would be made available "to address staffing shortages in certain districts," according to a news release. It said that 90 would be trained immediately to drive students to school.

Growing complaints about Columbus City Schools' shortage

Columbus City Schools has 606 bus drivers for 560 routes, to transport about 40,000 students, Rob Weinheimer, the district's director of transportation, said in a statement.

By comparison, the district employed 765 drivers for 704 routes last school year, he said.

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About a third of the students who are bused by the district attend charter and nonpublic schools, but the district is required to provide transportation to them if they live within district boundaries, according to Ohio law.

Columbus City Schools Superintendent Dr. Talisa Dixon addressed the district's busing issue at the city school board's Sept. 8 meeting.  

“Since the start of the school year we have received several concerns from transportation-eligible families regarding late buses, buses not picking students up at all or parents not being able to get through to customer service lines to speak with a representative,” Dixon said.

Raheem Farmer, a third grader at Ecole Kenwood French Immersion Elementary School, is supposed to be dropped off by his school bus just before 4 p.m.,  but it's usually been closer to 4:20-4:30 p.m. and sometimes as late as 5 p.m.

Columbus City Schools' transportation call center averaged 3,200 calls a day from parents and others to the district's customer service line during the first full week of school. The call center currently employs 11 people, and the district is hiring four additional call center representatives and two more dispatchers, Dixon said.

The district is actively recruiting bus drivers and there are 162 candidates in the process of becoming a bus driver trainee, Dixon said.

In an effort to attract more drivers, the district increased hourly pay for a bus driver trainee from $11 to $18.50. A regular bus driver's pay is $19.88 per hour.

The average median pay for a school bus driver was $16.67 per hour in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The district is also setting up a GPS-enabled arrival board that will allow school employees to track their buses in real-time, Dixon said.

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Columbus was considering a proposal to use Central Ohio Transit Authority buses for high school transportation this year, but decided against it. 

Instead, the district spent $317,000 on new software this summer from Dynamic Ideas to make its bus routes more efficient to optimize and pare down its bus routes. Dynamic Ideas is a company founded by MIT researchers who worked with Boston Public Schools to route buses with an algorithm, saving millions of dollars.

“Our transportation team worked to create more efficient routes to reduce the number of drivers needed each day,” Dixon said. “However, as a result of this strategy, some of our routes have longer ride times for students to and from school.” 

Office workers driving buses

The Olentangy Local School District is at a point where the support staff for the transportation department, the employees who manage the phones, have to get behind the wheel and drive school buses to help fill in the gap.

As a result, human resources employees have been placed in the school district's transportation office to manage calls. 

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“We’ve taken people away from their normal jobs to put them in the transportation offices because the transportation office workers are out driving bus routes,” said Julie Feasel, Olentangy Board of Education president. 

Olentangy has 171 bus driver positions, but only 152 drivers for 159 bus routes, district transportation director Lori Carter-Evans told The Dispatch in an email. 

“I wish we had more people that want to drive buses for us,” Feasel said.

More than half of America's school districts report their driver shortage is "severe" or "desperate," according to a nationwide survey. Many drivers retired during the pandemic, and now some are scared of face-to-face interaction with potentially infected kids.

Many other Greater Columbus school districts also struggling

Many other Greater Columbus school districts also are in need of more school bus drivers. 

Westerville has 100 bus drivers and 16 part-time substitute bus drivers for 101 bus routes, district spokesperson Greg Viebranz said in an email to The Dispatch. The district is looking to hire one more full-time driver and 12 substitute drivers.

“Right now we're making it work, but we could definitely use more drivers, especially substitute drivers,” Viebranz said. “In the event of a large number of drivers calling off, we have contingency plans in place that, under a worst-case scenario, could entail closing one or more of our schools or program sites for the day.”

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In an effort to attract more drivers, Petermann Bus is offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus and $500 referral bonus, Anna Lam, a spokesperson for Petermann Bus, said in an email. Pickerington schools and Groveport Madison Local Schools contracts their bus services through Petermann.

Pickerington has more routes than bus drivers — 64 routes and only 55 bus drivers plus eight substitutes, Jason Leeth, Petermann Bus' general manager, said in an email.

As a result, some students end up having to wait an additional 10 to 30 minutes to be picked up or dropped off, said Crystal Davis, the district’s spokesperson. That hasn't however, forced the district to alter its school bell schedule.

Gahanna’s bus drivers are the highest paid in Franklin County at $23 a hour, said Jim Gollings, regional director for the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE/AFSCME Local 4) based in Columbus. The district has all their bus routes covered — 64 bus drivers for 63 routes.

“I wish there was a way to fix the bus driver shortage" throughout Greater Columbus and the country, Farmer said.

Scrambling to fill school  bus driver vacancies across the country, some districts have increased pay and started offering referral and sign-on bonuses to get a competitive edge.

Not a quick fix

Because it takes time and weeks of training to become a bus driver, the shortage can’t be fixed overnight, school district and transportation officials said.

A potential bus driver goes through four to six weeks as a bus driver trainee and then must complete the driving test to earn a ​​Commercial Driver's License, said Simmons of the National Association of Pupil Transportation.

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“It’s hard to become a bus driver," he said. "It’s not a piece of cake.” 

Training roadblocks caused by the pandemic haven't helped, said Edward Flavin, a spokesperson for Petermann's.

"All new bus drivers in the state of Ohio are required to attend a 15-hour pre-service class prior to driving with students," Flavin said. "Due to COVID restrictions, those classes were all cancelled for the majority of 2020.

"Additionally, most of the commercial driver's license (CDL) testing locations were either closed or had very limited hours.”

Jackie Borchardt, bureau chief for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, and ThisWeek reporter Nate Ellis contributed to this report.