Bus Drivers Needed: Denver-area school districts face driver shortage
CASTLE ROCK – This summer, Douglas County School District’s (DCSD) Transportation Department was hard at work. Director Donna Grattino and her staff analyzed each and every route, proactively looking for ways to improve the system. As school started, their work paid off, helping the department cope with higher rider volumes and a shortage of drivers.
This fall, DCSD has seen a significant increase in ridership, for typical students, as well as those in Special Education. This is of particular concern, because while busses serving typical students may carry 40 to 70 riders, those serving Special Education students may only be able to carry one or two riders, because of their unique transportation needs.
Bus driver shortage
At the same time, DCSD and other school districts across the Front Range are experiencing a shortage of drivers, which has created a pinch.
“We’ve reached out to our surrounding school districts and we are finding that they are in the same situation we are. Drivers are hard to find right now,” Donna Grattino explained. Every district is seeing a similar shortage of drivers, with most districts facing a 20 to 30 percent shortfall in drivers.
The improving economy contributes to the shortage. More and more companies are now hiring, and having a commercial drivers license, which DCSD offers for free, can be quite an asset. Additionally, in a surging economy, the market competition is not just against driving/transportation companies, but against all companies across all industries, like Walmart and other commercial companies.
To that end, the Board has proactively approved a 5% salary increase for all drivers, to better compete in the market for quality drivers along the Front Range. This puts DCSD in a competitive position to lead the market in recruitment, and is also an investment in retaining our most talented and passionate drivers. Additionally, there is a referral program that allows any District employee to receive $200 when they refer a successful driver candidate who is ultimately hired, and another $200 if the driver stays with the District for one year.
Before facing these issues Transportation was already looking at ways to improve efficiency in its system and continue to be the best stewards of the community’s resources. With 235 busses carrying approximately 11,800 students to school daily, there was room for some fine-tuning, looking for places where it would be beneficial to move a bus stop or where routes overlapped. For instance, on some of the old routes there may only be anywhere from only one to 10 students on a bus, which served a similar neighboring route.
“In several areas we were able to consolidate. When we could combine, we did, in order to better use our resources,” Grattino said. “The safety of the students is always number one,” Grattino said. “We put a lot of thought into where we put stops.”
If a parent is concerned about the placement of the stop, they are encouraged to contact the Transportation Department.
“My managers and I are sitting down with parents to discuss their issues in person and to go out and see the bus stops they are concerned about,” Grattino said.
Choice provides complexity
Predicting ridership is made more difficult by Douglas County School District’s commitment to providing choice for parents. Instead of expecting that students will ride the bus twice a day, every day, families may decide to utilize the service only when it suits them, this making it inherently more difficult to predict ridership on any given day. Transportation is utilizing technology to better understand the ebbs and flows being experienced typically on each route.
Capacity for each bus is monitored through the Z Pass system on a regular basis so that the department can proactively identify capacity concerns, and just as importantly, in a few instances, give the community the right facts when an erroneous perception of over-capacity occurs.
“The Z Pass not only serves as a safety mechanism for our District, but it also helps us determine capacity needs on a route,” Grattino said. “It gives us more real-time information.”
Additionally, bus drivers monitor capacity during their routes. Three students are permitted per seat for elementary and middle school levels. At the high school level, there are only two students per seat.
If on any given day they experience a surge in ridership, Transportation has protocols in place to ensure safety. If a bus reaches capacity, District practice is for the bus driver to call for another bus for the remaining students. Protocol also requires that the original bus stay at the stop until the relief bus arrives, thus ensuring student safety.
Recent news stories have shown students standing on busses or sitting in aisles, despite there being capacity. Again, Grattino says bus drivers are trained not to leave a stop, if they are over capacity or if students are not properly seated. If the bus is moving, they are instructed to pull over as soon as it is safe to do so.
She says Transportation investigates all safety concerns. Depending on the situation the driver and/or the students may face disciplinary action. Drivers and students are partners in a great safe ride, therefore the optimal situation is always when drivers and students work as an integrated, collaborative, responsible team, holding each other to good bus citizenship.
In the end, Grattino says her goal and the goal of everyone who works in Transportation is to ensure our students have a great and safe experience on the bus, while being as efficient as possible for Douglas County taxpayers.
“I want our students to have a great bus ride. I want them to enjoy their bus ride and be prepared to go to school and be in a good mood when they get off the bus and that will project into their school day,” Grattino said.