Mentoring program, more working hours and bonus help secure more bus drivers

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Crook County School District now has a bus driver for every route.

Every school bus route has an assigned driver.

That was the good news Crook County School District Transportation Supervisor Michelle Saavedra delivered to school board members earlier this month.

"We thought we would celebrate tonight. We are at a position right now where every route has a driver," she told them. "I haven't driven a route in a week and a half. We've done the happy dance a few times."

It wasn't easy, but Saavedra and her team hired 14 drivers since July, bringing their driver total to 33.

"This is the kind of thing that we don't pat ourselves enough on the back for and take enough public credit for," said board member Scott Cooper. "It seems like a little management thing, but it's a big deal. Every district in the state is struggling with this, and Michelle fixed it."

So how did she fix it?

Saavedra helped implement three new tactics to entice potential drivers.

"We have started a driver mentoring program to help with new driver anxiety, retention and confidence," said Saavedra, who came to the district in the summer of 2016. "We are also expecting the program to have a positive impact on customer service."

In the new program, either Saavedra or the full-time driver trainer rides the bus with the new drivers for their first few days behind the wheel, providing support and feedback.

"There's a very big difference between driving a school bus with your driver trainer on board and … with 65 smiling happy grade school children behind you," Saavedra said.

New drivers are so focused on trying to learn to drive and finding the bus stops that the student management piece gets neglected.

"The feedback that we got from the drivers was they absolutely loved it," Saavedra said of the mentor program. "It was so much easier for them to transition."

The district also struggled to maintain drivers because of the few working hours and the split shift. In order to offer drivers more hours, the district arranged for three drivers to do some custodial work on school properties. Two others work at the transportation headquarters, fueling and cleaning buses.

"We don't have anyone working less than four hours a day," Saavedra said.

Offering potential drivers a $150 bonus to get their testing done in two weeks has also helped attract more drivers.

District bus drivers earn $14.57 to $18.51 per hour, depending on experience, and hours vary, depending on the length of routes, and sporting events and field trips.

Saavedra feels fairly confident that these drivers will still be on board after the summer break.

"I think we're looking pretty good as of right now," she said.

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