'One of our greatest challenges': The region's smaller school districts scramble to find bus drivers

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WAHPETON, N.D. — As a school district superintendent you wear a lot of hats: finance expert, manager, leader, teacher, coach.

In Wahpeton, don't forget to add bus driver to the list.

Superintendent Rick Jacobson has been driving morning and afternoon bus routes since October, when the district's transportation director quit and they lost a driver, too.

"It just seemed to be a perfect storm lined up. We were in a terrible spot," Jacobson said. "I had to learn all the routes real quick."

Jacobson figured it would be just a substitute gig.

Not so.

He now drives an afternoon route for the Dwight area, and fills in on morning routes. Two teachers and the athletic director also drive buses.

Jacobson starts his day at the bus shop at 6 a.m. He transitions to his superintendent duties at 8:30 a.m. After dealing with the issues of the day, he's back at the bus shop at 2 p.m. to be ready for an elementary route by 2:40 p.m. He returns to his office by 5 p.m.

"You're trying to stay on top of things, but obviously, giving up five hours a day," is difficult, he said.

Another driver starts Monday, March 5. Jacobson hopes that will take morning routes off his to-do list. "I knew we would be struggling, but I didn't realize it was going to get to this point," he said.

Widespread problem

There is a national shortage of school bus drivers, according to a survey released in November by School Bus Fleet, a trade publication.

Ninety percent of school districts surveyed had some degree of driver shortage, with 5 percent saying they were desperate, 22 percent facing a severe shortage, 33 percent a moderate shortage, and 30 percent a mild shortage.

Locally, officials from the Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead school districts said they have enough drivers or hire local transportation companies.

But many smaller area school districts must get creative to cover bus routes and trips for sports and extracurricular activities.

"To be honest, it's one of our greatest challenges," said Morgan Forness, superintendent for Central Cass School District in Casselton, N.D. "We have advertised for bus drivers pretty much throughout the entire year. We also have people here that serve multiple duties, whether it be teaching and driving, custodial (work) and driving."

Jeff Radermacher, Central Cass director of transportation and outside grounds, drives an afternoon bus route and fills in when needed. "You're hauling children," Radermacher said. "It's a very demanding job."

Forness has taken a turn behind the wheel, as have some coaches. And the district calls on people in the community who have commercial driver's licenses.

Lowell Jahnke of Durbin had farmed for 36 years on his own, and now works for another farmer, while keeping 35 cows.

If his day isn't full enough, he's also a bus driver for Central Cass.

As children stream out of school to go home, a couple of them give Jahnke a quick hug and he gives them a throaty growl, which they laugh at.

"The guy from the school board that was on the bus committee asked if I could drive bus," Jahnke said of his start 13 years ago. "And I haven't been able to get away since."

Central Cass officials are contemplating contracting bus services, Forness said, particularly for long-distance runs for sports.

"They're not knocking down our door to get a job," Forness said of drivers.

Churning a third

There are nearly 16,000 school bus drivers in Minnesota, says Shelly Jonas, executive director of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association. Depending on the market, they may be paid $11 to $20 an hour.

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction doesn't track the number of school bus drivers in the state, said Don Williams, the state's director of pupil transportation. But he said driver shortages are "almost across the board."

"It's a year-round struggle to keep qualified, well-trained bus drivers," Williams said.

Drivers working morning and afternoon routes may only work four to five hours a day, not really a full-time job. At the same time, the hours make it hard to hold other jobs, Williams said.

Another sticking point for people is the responsibility of driving a school bus, Williams said. However, pay in this region is competitive.

The national Bureau of Labor Statistics pegged the wages of school and special client bus drivers in North Dakota at $20.09 an hour in May 2016 — tops in the nation. Northwest Minnesota drivers averaged $18.41 an hour.

In Wahpeton, Jacobson said switching over from buses with manual transmissions and air brakes will help in finding drivers. Not many people know how to operate a manual transmission, he said.

Buying newer buses with automatic transmissions and hydraulic brakes will allow the district to tap into a broader driver pool, Jacobson said, but the price tag will make that a gradual process.

Valley Bus, a private firm that handles the Fargo School District's bus routes and a third of the routes for the West Fargo School District, is in "OK shape, almost all the time," General Manager John McLaughlin said. "But it's not stable. We have people coming and going all the time. About five years ago, we started making recruiting a full-time job."

McLaughlin said the size of the Fargo-Moorhead area makes it a magnet for people looking for work, which makes it easier for him to find replacement drivers.

Still "we're always churning one third" of the driver staff, McLaughlin said.

Barnesville Bus Co. covers the routes for the Barnesville (Minn.) School District. Co-owner Debbie Jerger said the business has been lucky with holding onto its drivers, including at times an undertaker, a former cop, a former school superintendent and a retired postman.

Northern Cass School District in Hunter, N.D., has also retained many of its long-time drivers, Superintendent Cory Steiner said. But Northern Cass also has several teachers and administrators who must drive buses, too.

"I will say that when we put out for applications, we never get applications for anyone to drive bus. We typically have to go out and recruit," Steiner said. "There's just not a lot of people out there willing to do it."