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Minnesota school districts face bus driver shortage

Kathy Bjonskaas considers herself one of the lucky ones. After 37 years as a bus driver for the Proctor school district, she can count on working 40 hours per week and collecting benefits.

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Proctor school bus driver Kathy Bjonskaas shows a new bus driver how to run through a predriving inspection Tuesday afternoon during a training session. Several area districts are experiencing a bus driver shortage. Kathy has driven for the Proctor school district for 20 years. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
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Kathy Bjonskaas considers herself one of the lucky ones. After 37 years as a bus driver for the Proctor school district, she can count on working 40 hours per week and collecting benefits.

But Bjonskaas' situation is far from typical. Many school bus drivers from districts across the state work fewer than 20 hours per week and do not receive benefits. This, combined with a recovering economy and more available full-time jobs, has caused many districts to suffer from a shortage of bus drivers, said Proctor superintendent John Engelking.

"Every year when we look for bus drivers to fill vacant routes we just don't have applicants," Engelking said. "You just don't get a lot of people who want to step up and do this."

Proctor currently employs 24 bus drivers, one of which was hired this year. As of last week the district still had two open positions it needed to fill.

Duluth is facing the same problem. Twenty-seven drivers currently work for the district, and it needed to hire two more as the school year approaches.

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Engelking said the lack of benefits offered to part-time workers makes employment as a bus driver less appealing. Curt Benassi, the Proctor district's transportation supervisor, said many drivers aren't able to work the 20 hours per week that would make them eligible for benefits. Benassi said he has been working to make benefits available to a wider range of people.

"A benefit package would be a nice thing to attract people, because people are really looking for medical benefits right now," he said. "I think that would really help attract some people to come drive."

It can be difficult for drivers who do work part time to find other ways to supplement their income, which may turn potential employees off to the profession. When Bjonskaas was just beginning her career she worked four hours per day - two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Between her shifts she worked as a bookkeeper for a trucking company.

"I was lucky," Bjonskaas said. "I worked for a trucking company that was close to where I was working, so it only took me five, 10 minutes to get there. ... But it doesn't always work out that way for people looking for another job."

The districts are also having trouble finding substitute drivers. Tim Sworsky, the Duluth school district's senior human resources manager, said managers from the district's transportation department often have to fill in when the regular drivers can't make it to work.

Sworsky said this is also due to the improved economy.

"(When) we were in the middle of a recession, we had more subs ... than we knew what to do with," he said. Now, "you see places like Menards, McDonald's, a lot of the regular industry that was suffering before are now back into hiring more. ... It's more competitive out there for the part-time-type positions."

The lack of substitute drivers puts a strain on current employees. Bjonskaas said she, as well as fellow drivers, worry about what will happen if they can't come to work.

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To attract new drivers, the Duluth school district is offering to pay for their training and for them to get the required license. Both the Proctor and Duluth districts have been advertising by putting up banners and posting online.

Like Engelking and Benassi, Bjonskaas thinks the best way to attract drivers is to offer more benefits. She is concerned for drivers who aren't as fortunate as she is.

"I feel for these drivers that only come in for an hour and a half in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon," she said. "They're spending more money on gas to go back and forth to work than it's actually worth."

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