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DATELINE — A shortage of school bus drivers is straining districts across the country. Richland County is no exception.

On Sept. 30, parents and guardians of Lexington students received a text alert: There was no driver available for Bus 17. Student pickup would be delayed by at least an hour.

Over the last few years, Lexington has combined bus routes and advertised job openings for full-time and substitute drivers, yet the shortage persists. The district currently has 18 routes and 17 drivers.

“We have had to rely heavily on substitute drivers,” Supt. Jeremy Secrist said.

Lexington has four people currently in training. One may be hired to fill the open route, two will serve as substitutes. The final trainee will only drive on an emergency basis because he already works for the district in another position.

“The challenge is there are not enough experienced drivers available to fill jobs,” Secrist said. “When training new drivers, the training takes 2 to 2.5 months, so filling an immediate need is very difficult.”

Lexington isn’t the only district struggling to find substitute drivers. Most area districts have a full roster of regular bus drivers, but finding substitutes remains a concern.

“It’s a very critical issue with all the districts that we deal with,” said Supt. Kevin Kimmel of the Mid Ohio Educational Service Center. “If there is a positive (COVID case) or a spread, it can shut down a district very quickly if one or two bus drivers are not able to drive.”

While COVID has exacerbated the bus driver shortage, it isn’t the only factor. Schools have been dealing with driver shortages for several years.

“It isn't something that is an all-of-the-sudden new thing,” said Treasurer Bradd Stevens of the Clear Fork Valley Local School District.

Administrators at Shelby City Schools and the Madison Local School District agreed.

“Right now we’re at the bare minimum where we have just enough drivers to get by but are short on subs,” said Supt. Rob Peterson of Madison. “If we have somebody come up sick, it's difficult to get by.”

Karen Kasler of the The Statehouse News Bureau reported that 40 percent of school districts in Ohio have to cancel routes on a regular basis.

That percentage comes from Dave Ogelesby, president of the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation, who surveyed school districts across the state.

Supt. Lisa Carmichael of Ontario said the district recently hired four new substitute drivers, including one permanent substitute. The district also requires its bus garage mechanic and maintenance personnel to have a commercial driver’s license so they can step in if needed.

“We’re actually in pretty good shape right now,” she said. “I think raising our substitute rate definitely helped.”

Ontario increased its substitute rate from $15.50 to $18 an hour in March; however, it is one of few districts in the area that does not offer full-time benefits to its drivers. Most districts in the area offer health insurance to full-time bus drivers that typically average between four and five hours of work per day.

Madison also increased its rates within the last year; regular drivers now make between $16.50 and $19.25, depending on their level of experience.

At Shelby, a bus driver with no experience starts at $18.14 an hour; a driver with 15 years experience receives $23.13 an hour.

Clear Fork pays its bus drivers between $14.99 to $21.34 an hour based on the driver’s experience. Substitute bus drivers earn $14.99 an hour.

At Lexington, the starting wage for full-time drivers is $16.56. Substitute bus drivers are paid $16.56 per hour. 

Kimmel said that some school districts have dealt with the shortage by training other school employees, such as maintenance and custodial staff.

“They're trying to be creative so they have backup within the district,” he said. “It doesn’t happen overnight, but if over time you can get four, five employees that wear a dual hat, that helps with the shortage.”

At Bucyrus City Schools, there are some employees who work two jobs in the district. A number of part-time aides, food service workers and custodial staff also serve as bus drivers, though Supt. Matt Chrispin said it’s not a result of the driver shortage.

“If somebody applies to be a building aide or food service, we don’t say ‘Hey do you want to be a bus driver also,’” Chrispin said. “It's just been that way. It’s been that way before I arrived (in 2019).”

“My hunch is it was a way for folks to get full-time employment.”

Multiple superintendents said the split-shift aspect of bus driving can make recruiting difficult. Some substitutes can only drive in the morning because they have other jobs.

Sycamore Community Schools, located in the greater Cincinnati area, kept busses running by recruiting mechanics, office staff and substitute teachers to drive.

In Saint Francis, Minnesota, the school superintendent got her commercial driver’s license. 

Administrators and educators in Paris, Maine are also in training to drive buses

Some larger school districts in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Oregon are paying parents and partnering with public transit systems to transport students.

Massachusetts has activated its National Guard to drive buses. Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio is considering it.

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Staff reporter focused on education and features. Clear Fork alumna. Always looking for a chance to practice my Spanish. You can reach me at katie.ellington@richlandsource.com