Facing bus driver shortage, Lake Oswego considers alternatives
The bus driver shortage in Lake Oswego continues, despite the school district's best efforts to rally up solutions
During the Nov. 30 board meeting, Lake Oswego School Board members explored at length different options that could potentially alleviate the persistent shortage. The good news: One new driver began work Monday, Dec. 6. The bad news: That's "not enough to make a difference," said Superintendent Jennifer Schiele.
"I think what you'll notice is right now, there isn't anybody when anyone calls in sick," said Schiele, who noted that an absent driver set routes back substantially the morning of Nov. 30.
'By solving this one problem, we are creating a series of other problems'
Alongside Student Transportation of America, which provides Lake Oswego's school bus services, the district has exhausted a multitude of ideas according to Schiele. But the district is not giving up on figuring out different ways to get students to school.
One possibility discussed was altering start times to stretch out the minimal number of bus drivers.
Schiele said that the three schools that would initially start earlier would be River Grove, Oak Creek and Lake Grove elementary schools, as they have the shortest routes. But STA said the change of time would force primary school students to be dropped off at their schools at 7:20 a.m, meaning their pick-up times from bus stops could be as early as 6 a.m.
"We believe it would be too early for younger students to be outside waiting for a bus," Schiele said.
Another concern with this option is the impact it would have on extended care programs. As classes would end an hour earlier, more students may need to join after-school programs if a parent is not available to pick them up at 2:20 p.m.
The district is already at the maximum number of students allowed in after-school care, unless they can hire more workers. But the district is also experiencing a shortage of after-school care workers.
"It sounds like by solving this problem, we're creating a whole other series of problems," said School Board Vice Chair Neelam Gupta.
The district has also thrown out the idea of purchasing caravans so drivers will not need to get a bus license.
"Not all routes have been impacted equally — there are a number of routes throughout the district that continue to provide transportation with an occasional hiccup," said Stuart Ketzler, assistant superintendent of business services.
Ketzler also said the district is still considering modeling the Portland Public Schools solution to the shortage, with financial stipends provided to families who drive their own child to school.
Who is impacted?
District officials are having conversations with principals to determine which students are showing up late or are absent because they cannot access transportation. Schiele said they were told some buses are only carrying up to five students.
Communications Director Mary Kay Larson said after 47 students were exposed to COVID-19 on a Hallinan Elementary bus earlier in the school year, many families started transporting their children out of safety concerns.
"The bus exposure really sent a shockwave through the system," she said. And although attendance rates remain high, with an average of 95% for all grade levels, the district is unaware of the sacrifices families might make to get their children to class.
"It's not so much about determining how much impact it's the impact that we don't see," Larson said. "We don't know if people are having to hire somebody to drive their kids. We don't know what kind of work schedule they're having to adjust."
Currently, 14 potential drivers are going through the training pipeline. The district also reminded community members that there is a $3,500 signing bonus for all new drivers. Incentivized applicants will be offered benefits like a 401K plan with a 3% match from STA.
New drivers will complete an eight-week training, paid for by the district. The license is valid to work almost any transportation job in Oregon.
"Anyone in early retirement who wants to come out and help our community, they can drive a school bus for a while and then be a wine tour bus driver, all courtesy of the Lake Oswego School District," Aird said. "My biggest concern is: Who isn't showing up to school? And why aren't they showing up to school? Who is impacted by that burden of not accessing a free and public education?"
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