Lake Superior School District faces bus driver shortage
The Lake Superior School District has more bus routes than bus drivers.
District buses take 24 runs a day — 12 before school and 12 after — but only 21 are covered by drivers, according to district bus dispatcher Dennis Wagner, who also drives morning and afternoon routes.
"I have nightmares about it on a daily basis," Wagner told the News-Chronicle.
Superintendent Bill Crandall said in an interview last week that an aging workforce and more job opportunities are to blame. It's a problem that districts face nationwide.
"It's kind of a double-edged sword. One of the reasons is that the economy is doing great so unemployment is very low," Crandall said. "People have their choice of jobs."
While the district would eagerly hire more bus drivers, it is preparing to adjust existing routes to cover openings.
Crandall said that district staff spent last week's school break examining ways to consolidate routes, or request that parents transport their children to bus stops on existing routes.
The district also has considered contracting open routes out to Voyageur Bus Co., but that is much more expensive, Crandall said.
But with retirements and sick leaves looming, those changes will only go so far.
"It's just going to keep getting worse," Wagner said.
Wagner said another issue is that potential bus drivers face a lengthy training process, which could be a deterrent for some.
Several written tests are required to earn the commercial driver's license with passenger and school bus endorsements. Drivers must then pass driving tests before they can haul students, among other requirements.
"Just to get licensed is more involved than it ever was," Wagner said. "There's nothing wrong with being safe, but like with anything, the bubbles get swung way too far to one side or the other."
LSSD bus drivers make $17.14 per hour and are eligible for benefits based on the number of hours they work each day. Full wages kick in for drivers working six hours per day; drivers working fewer hours earn less.
But for many bus drivers, the job supplements other sources of income. Some retired from their career and are driving part-time. They'll likely retire from bus driving soon.
That's all occuring at a time when demand for transportation for sports and other extracurricular activities is increasing, Wagner said.
Without that available pool of drivers, current drivers are affected, too.
"They've been working sick for months because they know there's no one to fill in," Wagner said. "This is a dedicated bunch of people."