Bus driver shortage impacts Hillsboro School District
School buses across Hillsboro this year are stuck in gridlock, but it's not traffic on Tualatin Valley Highway that's jamming up bus schedules this school year, it's a lack of bus drivers at all.
At its worst this summer, the Hillsboro School District had 27 open bus driver positions. Today, with the new school year a few weeks in, that number is still high, with 18 buses currently without regular drivers to pick up and drop off students across the district.
"Every day we put a puzzle together," said Carol Hatfield, executive director of transportation for the district. "But we are a committed group of people and we are going to do everything possible to make it work."
The need is so great the district sent a letter out to parents in August warning them that delays in buses could impact student schedules some days. Buses for some extracurricular activities and sporting events may not be able to get students where they need to be on time, they said.
Many days, office staff, dispatchers and driving trainers hop onto buses themselves, filling in until the positions are filled.
"Our mechanics, our office staff, our driver trainers, our routers, our dispatchers, they are all willing to say, 'I have a full time job, but if this is what it takes to get the job done, then I will go drive a route, too," Hatfield said.
School districts across the country have struggled to fill bus driver positions for years. Hillsboro has historically been better able to fill those jobs compared to other school districts across the country, Hatfield said.
"Your luck can only hold out for so long," she said. "We are really struggling for the first time with this driver shortage."
In Hillsboro, drivers work six-hour days. The positions include benefits and paid training, Hatfield said. The district will cover the fees and licenses drivers need.
But the positions remain unfilled.
A national problem
In 29 years in the industry, Hatfield said this year is the hardest it has ever been to hire school bus drivers.
"We want people to not just be bus drivers," she said. "We want people who enjoy students, to be invested in the needs of the students, (who) want to build those positive relationships, and (believe) student success is important. That's what we are looking for in a candidate. We say all the time, 'We can teach anybody how to drive a bus,' but we want people to invest their time in kids and really help students feel supported."'
The shortage has become increasingly worse over the past eight years, Hatfield said, and it isn't just school districts suffering. Any job requiring a commercial driver's license have been impacted, she said, but school districts have been hit the hardest.
"The federal government has started putting more restrictions on (commercial driver's license) holders," she said. "It's like with anything else, they start out with the best of intentions."
Many longtime drivers have also retired over the past year, a major blow in a field that has typically attracted older candidates, and the district is falling behind offering competitive wages, compared to its neighbors.
For the Beaverton School District, which imposed a new wage scale earlier this summer, hourly wages for bus drivers range from $17.57 to $22.62 an hour.
Bus drivers in Hillsboro make between $16.03 to $17.49 an hour, Hatfield said.
"Obviously when the economy gets better … we have a lot of people who are then able to find work in their chosen profession," Hatfield said.
Neighboring districts have already settled on new contracts and increased wages for bus drivers, but Hillsboro is just now in the negotiation process with Hillsboro Classified United, the union which represents Hillsboro bus drivers. The district's contract with the union ended in June. Hatfield said she expects wages for bus drivers to go up once negotiations are through.
"We have been struggling," Hatfield said. "I do believe that we will get back on top of this, but it's a real struggle right now."
Hatfield said some of the added requirements for bus drivers — such as more physical requirements for drivers and greater medical restrictions requiring candidates see specific doctors from a national registry before receiving their commercial driver's license — may not seem worth it for a typically low-paying, part-time job, especially when the economy is good and there are other job options available.
"Oregon has always had a very stringent, intense training program (and) licensing program," Hatfield said. "We were already very dialed in with student safety. (This) did start to feel intrusive."
District prioritizing bus schedules
At a time when fewer men and women are getting behind the wheel of a bus, the demand for drivers is higher than ever. There has been an increase in after-school activities and school trips. Students regularly enroll in classes or programs at other schools within the district and need transportation, and early intervention preschool programs offer bus services to the district's youngest students, Hatfield said.
So far, pick up and drop off times haven't been impacted more than other years, Hatfield said, but extracurricular events could be.
Drivers are planning trips in terms of highest priority, Hatfield said, with transportation to and from school at the forefront, followed by competitions and sporting events, then transporting students to classes or programs at other schools. Special events and extracurricular trips, both academic and athletic, are prioritized last, she said.
Hatfield said she doesn't want to take opportunities away from students due to a lack of transportation.
"Every opportunity is a good opportunity," she said. "I don't want kids to ever think that one group is more important than the other group. For Hillsboro, we have so many opportunities for kids that are so valuable that school bus driving is not a part-time job anymore."
Until the positions are filled, however, Hatfield said the transportation team will continue to put a "new puzzle together" each day to make sure students get where they need to be on time.
"We are like McDonalds, we never close," Hatfield joked. "It takes a team of people who want to work."
By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
Subscribe to our E-News and get the week's top stories in your inbox
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.