School bus drivers desperately needed amid local, state, and national shortage

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Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times
The Amherst Schools have a great fleet but are struggling to find a large pool of full-time and substitute drivers.

JASON HAWK
EDITOR

Parents rely on a fleet of big yellow buses to get their kids to school every day.

But the wheels on the bus can’t go ’round and ’round without a corps of drivers — and districts across the entire nation are experiencing shortages.

That pain is felt right here in Amherst, where school transportation supervisor Cathy Gale said she’s desperate for more drivers.

On days when a few call in sick, Gale herself steps into the driver’s seat to make sure kids get to school and back home.

Sometimes — think flu season — her secretary and bus garage mechanics, who are all certified, get behind the wheel.

“The kids have to get to school no matter what. We can’t just leave them stranded,” Gale said.

In the past couple of years she’s tried to find full-time and substitute drivers via classifieds, online sites such as Indeed, job fairs, Ohio Jobs and Family Services, social media, and good ol’ word of mouth.

The roster is at 39, which includes full-time drivers, subs, aides, and mechanics. Gale said an ideal number would be 50.

Full-time drivers start at $19.01 per hour plus steps for up to 20 years of experience — Amherst is among the highest-paying districts in the county. Though the job calls for only four hours a day, those drivers are eligible for benefits.

The rate for substitutes during the 2019-2020 school year was increased Monday in a vote by the board of education. Last year it was $16.75 per hour and now it will be $1850 per hour.

“Substitute bus drivers are at a premium,” district superintendent Steven Sayers said.

Gale said the district will pay for training, inservices, and licensing. That includes a week-long driving class, 12 hours of additional on-bus instruction, and a CDL endorsement test.

Applicants can’t have any drunk driving convictions. They must also pass a physical and be fingerprinted.

For more information, call Gale or Micheline Krause at 440-988-2633.

The job is perfect for young adults or retirees looking to supplement their income or help serve the community, said Gale.

It’s a chance to build lasting friendships with children and their families, she said, and people remember their bus drivers decades after finishing school.

The Amherst fleet is well-maintained. Officials purchase at least a couple of new buses every year, rotating out the oldest ones, while mechanics keep even aged buses in tip-top shape, Gale said.

“We don’t put anyone out there on shabby buses,” she said.

Police monitor bus radio channels for safety, which she said is the top priority for her staff.

Gale, who’s been in transportation for 36 years, started out as a substitute bus driver herself, then after a month took a full-time route.

She quickly moved up the ranks, becoming an instructor and supervisor,

Today, she chairs monthly Lorain County transportation supervisor meetings and said driver shortages are not unique to Amherst.

Every district countywide is struggling, she said, and officials are at a loss for how to attract more drivers.

Gale estimates that combined, the 13 local districts need between 50 and 75 more people to take kids to school, field trips, and after-school events.

“It’s so bad in Lorain County that we have to help each other out,” she said. “I’ve helped Vermilion, I’ve helped Oberlin, I’ve helped Clearview with transportation because we all just don’t have the people.”

Nationwide, the problem has grown so severe that some districts are offering sign-up bonuses or even paying teachers extra to drive before and after school.

Other school systems have had to drop certain routes because there weren’t employees to drive them.

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