.No Way Home

Bus driver shortage leaves students in the lurch

Every day kids are being left at school and parents have had to take off work to pick them up because of a shortage of bus drivers.

PVUSD Transportation Director Mark Verch says the district needs 75 drivers to complete all of its routes, but is currently short 21.

And even with the mechanics, fuelers, trainers and dispatchers taking shifts, there are school routes every day that go unfilled, leaving families scrambling to find ways to get their kids to school and home again, Verch says.

During its Jan. 24 meeting, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees approved a $1000 financial reward for anyone who recommends qualified bus drivers to take students to and from school, and on field trips.

That problem has been bedeviling PVUSD–along with districts across the U.S.–with the low pay and high cost of living driving people out of the industry.

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“It really hurts, knowing those kids are going to have to find a different way home,” he says.

Another impact, he says, is on field trips.

The low numbers leave just five buses available every day to take kids on extracurricular trips, so one that involves all the fifth-graders from a school will fill that.

Teachers as a result must put in requests for field trip transportation months in advance.

 “It’s on a first-come, first-served basis,” he said. “It hurts to reject a field trip, because that’s special for the kids. It’s all impacting the students. That’s what it comes down to.”

Verch says the problem stems largely from the pay, with hourly wages ranging from $19.68 to $25.11.

But the position also comes with a somewhat onerous application and certification process, which can take up to six months, and which makes California the strictest state to become a bus driver, he says.

This includes 20 hours of classroom work, and several written tests administered by the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Motor Vehicles. Drivers must also go through 20 hours of on-the-road training under the tutelage of an instructor. But that can be hard when the instructors are busy covering shifts, Verch says.

“They’re all now having to take on these roles of filling the vacancies, including our supervisor who goes out and drives, which means they aren’t able to fill their duties. So their work is also suffering,” he says. 

The requirements, he says, speak to the importance of the job.

“This is somebody’s child,” he says. “We want to make sure they are getting the best service and the best drivers out there to protect these students, so there are no accidents.”

Another challenge for school districts is the state law that mandates transportation for special education students, but not for those in general education. So during a shortage, priority for buses shifts to that population.

The shortage is not limited to PVUSD.

Santa Cruz City Schools spokesman Sam Rolens says that district is in somewhat better shape, with four unfilled positions and two who are in the hiring process.

Still, with pay for Santa Cruz Metro drivers ranging from $25.81-$35.93 per hour, the competition for qualified drivers can make retention a challenge.

“You have a lot of employers to choose from,” Rolens says. “We work hard to make sure that we’re being competitive with the Metro, but any time you’re in an industry where there are options, it’s hard.”

Across the U.S., the number of school bus drivers has steadily declined since the economic recession of 2009, when roughly 290,000 were employed, according to a November, 2023 study by the Economic Policy Institute. That number has decreased to 192,400.

PVUSD Superintendent Murry Schekman said that a pay increase would help address the problem. But such a proposal would be a big ask, since the unions representing teachers and school employees have “me-too” clauses in their contracts, which require that raises for any sector go to all employees.

“When you give a pay raise, it should go to everyone,” he says. “The benefits in PVUSD are so good that people stay when they see them, but I sure wish we paid better.”

Proposing pay increases could also be a hard sell for the cash-strapped district, which is facing enrollment decreases and subsequent loss of per-pupil funding.

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