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Ohio schools are facing a shortage of bus drivers
Long training, low pay and competition are the leading causes

Mark Urycki
Some districts have hired private companies to bus kids. The largest in the country, First Student, is headquartered in Cincinnati and it, too, had trouble finding drivers.
Courtesy of MARK URYCKI
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As the school year winds down, districts in Ohio will be watching to see what the new biennial state budget has in store. Another issue they have to plan for is the transportation routes and schedules for next year. A growing problem for them has been simply finding enough school bus drivers. Mark Urycki of StateImpact Ohio reports.
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It’s been happening all over the state: kids standing at the bus stop wondering why their bus is so late. The pupil transportation coordinator for the state Board of Education, Bob Harmon, says school districts just don’t have enough drivers.

"Dayton City Schools, for example, has a constraint driver shortage, Columbus City Schools, Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown. There’s not anybody that would turn away a qualified candidate."

Add Cincinnati to that, and smaller districts like Marietta and Perrysburg.

“We’d love to have more candidates to cover the existing routes let alone fill in this time of year for the field trips, the track events, the double headers, the volleyball, etc."

The replacements
So schools have had to stagger bus routes with a driver doubling back to get kids at a later time. And the transportation supervisor for Perrysburg Schools, Ellen Moser, says districts have to ask other qualified staff to get behind the wheel.

“I have a dispatcher, I have two mechanics and we get very, very creative on how to move people from point A to point B.”

Some districts have hired private companies to bus kids. The largest in the country, First Student, is headquartered in Cincinnati but it’s had trouble too, temporarily bringing in some 40 drivers from Wisconsin and Michigan at the beginning of the school year.

The average wage for drivers in Ohio is $15 an hour but it varies widely. In Perrysburg, a driver can earn as much as $20 an hour. Moser says the district will pay for the training so drivers can earn their commercial driver’s license, or CD, but even it struggles to find drivers.

“I still think that there’s so much that someone needs to go through to become a bus driver. I think that’s the part that is a little overwhelming to them more so than the pay.”

Long training
Besides the CDL, Ohio requires drivers to take a minimum 27 hours of additional training. Bob Herman points out that some of the attractions to drivers – like health care benefits -- are being dropped by cash-strapped schools. 

“A lot of districts have taken away the benefits or reduced the benefits or reduced the hours. Drivers have gone from a 6-hour workday to a 4-hour workday. So there’s some real cost savings to the district. Unfortunately, it makes it very difficult to retain drivers once you get them."

The fleet supervisor for Columbus City Schools agrees. Jeff Vrabel has also seen drivers lured away by commercial haulers in the oil and gas business.

“When I was in Northeast Ohio and working in Columbiana County, that was happening a lot to districts in that county. They would come and get the training through the school, obtain the CDL, and then just stop and go drive for the fracking industryy. That hurt a lot when that was really, really big when it first started."

Vrabel says its unlikely districts can raise wages for drivers because many have been hoping to replace old buses. In the governor’s education budget proposals, the state would reduce its share of the transportation budget for most schools.

It’s the responsibility of each district to provide transportation for its students, and for private and charter school students as well. 

License to drive
Some districts in the southeast part of the state have had to hire 19-year-olds to meet the shortage. Harmon knows of some states where they’re as young as 16.

"South Carolina is still one of the few states that you don’t have to be 21 to drive a school bus. You can still be in high school and drive your teammates to the event."

Harmon says Ohio bus drivers are the safest on the road but he would like to see the state raise the minimum age for drivers from 18 to 21. Insurance companies have already pushed most districts to meet that 21 year old minimum, if they can find the applicants.
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