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One Utah school district responds to bus driver shortage with new recruitment efforts

A big yellow school bus parked on Moab’s Main Street advertises the need for bus drivers. The school district is increasing pay and conducting a CDL class for new drivers. 
Molly Marcello
A big yellow school bus parked on Moab’s Main Street advertises the need for bus drivers. The school district is increasing pay and conducting a CDL class for new drivers. 

School districts across the country are grappling with transportation issues due to a shortage of bus drivers.

That’s true even in Grand County, Utah, were recruitment efforts are ramping up.

 Grand County's school district went into the year short.

They were short on kitchen staff, short on substitute teachers, short on maintenance workers.

Although they were able to bolster staffing levels in many departments before the school year officially began, one department still grapples with finding the right mix of individuals who can serve as both mentors and transportation professionals: bus drivers.

Anna Conrad, Director of Transportation at Grand County Schools, is speaking in the break room at the bus barn, a space that's homey and comfortable, mostly because of the school bus-themed decor.

"We are all yellow school buses," said Conrad. "We love school buses."

A month ago, in this very room, Conrad had a meeting with her staff, forewarning them that this year might be a little challenging.

"Two days before school starts, my drivers come in and I update them on all the new procedures and things that are going on for the year," explains Conrad.

"And at that time I just said, 'you know, we're really short this year on drivers.'"

Specifically, they are currently short by five drivers, a significant shortfall for a small district like Grand County.

Conrad says that to efficiently service routes and to cover activities like sports games and field trips, the district needs three more full-time and two more part-time drivers, and they don't have that yet.

To manage this, they've combined two routes into one and are tapping into anyone and everyone who can help, including the district's mechanic and even Conrad herself.

"It's a juggling act every day, and it can be entertaining, to say the least," said Conrad.

Grand County's schools are not alone in this transportation juggling act.

Major counties and cities across the country are also facing driver shortages, which have even led to temporary school closures.

This nationwide issue has been brewing for some time.

"It was starting back before the coronavirus happened. So bus shortages throughout the nation actually started before COVID," said Conrad.

"And then after COVID, of course, it just, it went downhill."

Private transportation company HopSkipDrive, surveyed hundreds of districts across the country for their annual school transportation report.

In their latest survey, districts say they've lost bus drivers to retirement, low pay, and competition with private companies like Amazon who need professional drivers.

Conrad says driver retirement hit in a big way for Grand County schools.

"And so that's been really tough. Not replacing them is the hard thing," she said.

Conrad emphasizes that being a school bus driver requires a certain type of person who is willing to drive a 40-foot bus, obtain a commercial driver's license, embrace a split-shift schedule, and work closely with students.

"We classify our buses as mobile classrooms. So teaching doesn't end at school. And so most of our drivers know that," she said.

Part of each driver's route, according to Conrad, is to learn every student.

School bus drivers are the first staff students see in the morning, and the last before they go home.

"So drivers have a unique opportunity to bond with those students in a different way than a teacher would. We see their homes, we see where they're going and we can see if they're having a bad day. And we just talk to them," said Conrad.

She hopes that this unique type of mentorship will attract new professionals to the field.

But a few other incentives will likely help too.

The district has increased driver pay, with new school bus drivers in Grand County starting at just over $22 an hour.

If they work full time, they can access benefits like medical and retirement.

This year, Conrad is even offering an in-house CDL class beginning this October, and she's hoping she'll get some more dedicated staffers out of it.

"It's quite a process to become a school bus driver, but there's nothing better in the world," she said.

Hanging in the halls of Grand County's bus barn are professional photos of the drivers, pictured with their buses, reminiscent of the starting lineup of a championship sports team.

Conrad says her team are all stars.

"I can't speak highly enough about my crew. We've got a great, a great team. I couldn't ask for any better drivers," she said.

Conrad explains how one driver decorates their bus with images of butterflies, another in motivational quotes, another hosts a Word of the Month, where kids can earn extra credit for using the word in a paragraph or a picture.

She has a fitting theme for her department this year.

"My theme this year is we are small, but we are mighty."

This storywas shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

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