Baldwin City schools to eliminate bus services for some students amid driver shortage

A student prepares to board a First Student bus at Quail Run Elementary School in this file photo from June 2011.

A shortage of bus drivers means the Baldwin City school district will be cutting transportation services for some students this fall.

The decision, finalized by the Baldwin City school board last month after several years of discussion, will eliminate bus service for families living within 2.5 miles of their school. Paul Dorathy, the district’s superintendent, said the move would affect at least 250 students who already rely on bus services.

“To continue busing of students under 2.5 miles, to adequately staff that, we would need five new drivers … which is significant for us,” Dorathy said. “Five drivers doesn’t sound like a lot for the Lawrence district, but five drivers is a lot for us.”

Dorathy said the Baldwin City district was not unique in its struggles. The district has relied on “some very dedicated drivers for many years,” he said, but with those people now approaching retirement the district hasn’t had much luck in finding qualified replacements, even with its efforts to increase salaries $5 per hour over the past three years.

Part of the issue is the number of “hoops they have to jump through” in order to land the job, he said, which include drug testing, a Kansas Department of Transportation physical, and the driving and written exams drivers must pass before even being considered. There’s also mandatory first aid and driver safety training, as well as the requirement of a safe driving record.

“All of that just so that they can get in the driver’s seat for the first time,” Dorathy adds. Then, of course, there’s the responsibility of safely driving the bus while also having to supervise potentially dozens of kids on board.

It’s also an hourly job that provides around three hours of work per day. This used to be a good fit for retirees, Dorathy said, but not so much for today’s job seekers.

“The problem is a complex problem, and it may mean us having to change our jobs from part-time jobs to full-time jobs where we ask them to do other duties in the district such as custodian, a cook, a teacher’s aide, a secretary,” he said. “Asking them to do other jobs between them driving in the morning and the afternoon.”

The Journal-World also checked in with neighboring Eudora and Lawrence school districts.

Kristin Magette, Eudora schools’ communications director, said her district, which operates its own shuttle service, remains adequately staffed heading into the upcoming school year.

Still, she recognizes Baldwin City’s struggle in filling bus driver positions.

“I think that we all face the same challenge of finding highly qualified, caring employees who are willing to say ‘yes’ to this kind of job,” Magette said. “It’s a challenging job.”

Julie Boyle, the Lawrence district’s communications director, said Lawrence has a fairly low unemployment rate, as she understands it. But bus drivers are among a handful of positions that seem to be chronically difficult to hire and keep, she said.

“First Student and the district do find it challenging to hire bus drivers, as well as paraeducators, food service, custodians, substitutes and some hard-to-fill teaching positions,” Boyle wrote in an email.

Unlike Eudora and Baldwin City, which operate their own in-house busing services, Lawrence contracts with First Student transportation providers. Wayne Zachary, the company’s Lawrence branch manager, said First Student was adequately staffed for the upcoming school year in Lawrence.

“That being said, we are currently aggressively recruiting for drivers to bolster our current staff of 80 drivers for our anticipated 75-76 routes this fall,” Zachary wrote in an email. “We have raised our starting wage to $15.10 with a school day guarantee of four hours daily. We have also offered our current employees a $500 referral bonus for qualified drivers.”

First Student currently has seven or eight applicants in various stages of training, he added, and the company hopes to have “an abundant supply of drivers” by the time fall classes start up on Aug. 15.

Dorathy, Baldwin City’s superintendent, said the district is concerned that the elimination of bus services for some families may lead to truancy and attendance issues. There’s also the problem of traffic flow around schools, as the district expects more parents will now have to drop off and pick up their kids instead of relying on bus services.

Some families, he said, may not have reliable transportation. Others, because of parents’ work schedules, may also have trouble in getting kids to school on time. Walking to school alone, especially for younger kids, isn’t “a very safe practice,” Dorathy said.

“And walking their child to school may work on good days, but most certainly in Kansas, our school year runs through the winter months, and it would be a major challenge, and especially for the younger children, to walk a longer distance to school,” he added.

In the meantime, the school district is in talks with the Baldwin City Recreation Commission to expand its before-school and after-school programming, Dorathy said, and continues to discuss the ongoing issue with its own transportation committee.

The Baldwin City school board is expected to weigh in on recommendations from that committee at the next board meeting, on July 16.


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