By MICHAEL WHITNEY
Published March 1, 2023
Attrition from school bus
drivers retiring creates gap to fill at some districts
SNOHOMISH — The Snohomish School District is doing as best it can with an ongoing driver shortage of about 15 driver vacancies.
Mechanics, substitute drivers and transportation office staff are taking the slack. "We're still magically somehow getting it done," district transportation supervisor Veronica Schmidt told the school board last month.
But if more people would file a job application, she'd be elated. There are 39 drivers in the roster right now. She'd prefer having around 60.
Retirements are one reason why new openings keep recurring. Part of the driver pool skews older.
What might make someone want to drive?
"The benefits are more than a paycheck," Schmidt said last week.
It's split shift work, where you'd be driving typically from 6 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. and then return 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. She said some see that as a perk to have free time during part of the day.
Schmidt said people enjoy driving a school bus because of the connections with kids, and some like the scenery. There's year-round pay that includes summer months when there's no work to do. School bus driving comes with full state retirement medical benefits, she said.
"I need people, and I need people who want to do this (work) for all the right reasons," she said.
It's no cakewalk to get the job, though. The school district will pay applicants to undergo eight weeks of Commercial Driver's License (CDL) training. About half make it through, Schmidt said. People need to pass detailed vehicle knowledge tests and bus driving tests. There's a physical check-up. Marijuana use is a disqualifier because of federal law.
Many of these hoops were added by federal regulators about five years ago, Schmidt said.
However, if your driving record is clean, "you can come in with no experience with a commercial vehicle" to try to get the Class B CDL to drive, Schmidt said.
The district arranges a private company to transport Snohomish students who are in situations where they're outside the district, such as students experiencing homelessness served through the McKinney-Vento program and children taken into temporary foster care homes and children enrolled in Snohomish schools who attend special needs services available at education centers outside the district’s boundaries.
Some of the farthest trips take kids to south King County for these services.
If staffing wasn't slim, the district's own drivers could be handling this work, Schmidt said.
Snohomish's woes mirror national districts. There is a national school bus driver shortage.
Schmidt said she’s aware the Lake Stevens and Marysville school districts are facing severe driver shortages, too.
Monroe district spokeswoman Tamara Krache said Monroe is "fully staffed" for CDL drivers. Recently, a large recruiting class added to the driver pool. Monroe has 42 regulars plus two subs, and a handful of non-CDL drivers who drive vans, Krache said. Its office staff and mechanics can be dispatched to drive buses as need be.
Monroe pays for private transportation services such as HopSkipDrive to transport some McKinney-Vento students.
Everett contracts with Durham as its long school bus operator. The short buses are driven by district transportation employees. It uses the apps HopSkipDrive and Everdriven to transport long-distance students such as McKinney-Vento students experiencing homelessness or students in Everett who are arranged to attend schools outside the district boundary, Everett spokeswoman Jennifer Goodhart said.
Just over 70% of Everett's students ride the bus, Goodhart said, meaning every school day there are more than 15,000 riding.
In related news
Snohomish Schools' first electric bus is being put on a shorter route in the Fobes Hill area after its expected range ran short. Cold weather saps the batteries, Schmidt told the school board last month.
Last year, the district first put the 71-passenger all-electric rig on an 80-mile route before recharging. The new route is shy of 70 miles before recharging.
It's "a route we think will work," Schmidt said to the board.
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