The first day of school is basically here, yet local school districts are still searching to fill some of their most important positions: bus drivers. As it stands now, Ithaca City School District (ICSD), for example, has about 10 less bus drivers than it would like, meaning former drivers and staff members are needed to handle routes as school begins.
While it doesn’t look as if there’s any chance of a service disruption or significant delays, the district is mounting a recruiting effort to try to attract more people to apply for bus driver jobs. Their current roster of drivers sits at 75, and ideally the district would have 85 going into a school year.
“I don’t think we’ve had to actually scale back the services that we provide for kids, we don’t ever want to do that,” ICSD’s Bob Van Keuren said. “We’re set to go Day 1, Hour 1, but this is going to be a constant recruitment effort moving forward for a few years.”
Larry Park is one example of the kind of person the district could use more of. Parks has driven a bus for three decades after responding to a newspaper ad seeking bus drivers.
“‘All the stuff I did on the bus, to the bus driver, with my colleagues on the bus, I ain’t going to have 60 kids behind me doing that to me,’” Park remembered saying at the time, laughing. “[But] I went down, applied, 30 years ago, and here I am. I’ll be retiring in June of 2020 with 31 years. Out of my 30 years, I haven’t had a bad route, at all.”
Park has had children with special needs on his buses over the last several years. He starts his days at around 6 a.m., finishing his morning route arund 8:30 a.m. He then makes mid-day runs, smaller trips reserved for students who have to go home early for whatever reason (most drivers starting out would have a four hour break during this time). Following that, he makes two trips from Caroline to take students home from there, then finishes with a trip to DeWitt Middle School and back out to stops after that. His day finishes around 5:30 p.m.
“Larry’s a great example of it, you can come here early and if you want to drive for a career, you can stay,” Van Keuren said. “We have state retirement, health insurance, you’re paid a percentage of your salary for life, it’s not bad.”
Despite that, the district is falling victim to statewide factors that have seen interest in a job as a bus driver decline. The need for bus drivers is not just an ICSD phenomenon, either. Signs can be seen throughout Tompkins County advertising open positions in different districts, often in the form of large banners scrolled across an idle school bus.
“We’re not just competing with other school districts for drivers, its other businesses in general,” Van Keuren noted, saying that Tompkins County’s generally healthy economy and low unemployment have made it difficult at times to attract potential drivers. There were also recent changes made to the certification test that have made it more difficult to obtain proper licensing for the job, another hurdle potentially interested candidates must deal with.
“We just want people that care about kids and want to make a difference,” said Liz Berner, ICSD’s director of transportation. The last two years or so have seen a more significant downturn in bus driver applications, Berner said, which has unfortunately paired with several retirements from the company as aging drivers move out of the workforce, like Park will soon do. “As a department, we try to make the first and last people that [the kids] see [positive], as well as making education accessible to kids.”
Park has been able to stick with the job long enough and was able to make it a viable career. He’s had a positive enough experience over his career that he’s willing to serve as a substitute after his retirement next June, something he has already agreed to do. The district’s hope, of course, is now to find a next generation to replace people like Park, who can connect with students and find rewards in those relationships as he has.
“I’ve had students at the end of the school year ask me, ‘Are you going to be our bus driver again next year?’” Park said. “I’m up in seniority enough now that I can tell them, ‘Yeah, I will be your driver next year. That’s rewarding to me, because they have that smile on their face and they’re looking forward to that.”