There are many reasons why Leanne Gallegos loves her job, but one stands head and shoulders above the rest.
“I just love the kids!” said Gallegos, who is in her fifteenth year as a bus driver for Cherry Creek Schools. “I love taking them to and from school. I love going on field trips. I love the variety of my job.”
Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough qualified drivers like Gallegos to keep up with demand. Right now, Cherry Creek Schools and districts across the state and the nation are facing a critical driver shortage.
A 2015 survey by School Bus Fleet magazine showed that 92 percent of responding districts had a shortage of school bus drivers, a situation that gets worse as the economy gets better and people have more employment options. In 2016, School Bus Fleet magazine and the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) conducted a survey that showed the school bus driver shortage was either “severe” or “desperate” for more than one-third (37%) of respondents.
Because of the ongoing shortage, the Cherry Creek School District has taken aggressive action to recruit and retain qualified drivers. The district pays for background checks, fingerprinting and training. CCSD also increased starting pay to $17 an hour, which is above the national average for school bus drivers. Most driver positions are for 30 or more hours per week, which means those drivers qualify for benefits including health insurance, vacation and sick time. But even with those incentives, Cherry Creek Schools started the 2017-18 school year with a deep driver deficit.
“At the beginning of the school year, we were about 100 drivers short,” said Brad Carriveau, Director of Transportation for Cherry Creek Schools.
That kind of shortage has a tremendous impact on Cherry Creek’s complex transportation operation. Its fleet of 308 buses, which includes 114 special needs buses, travels nearly 250 routes each day, logging more than 2.7 million miles per year. The Cherry Creek School District has some of the shortest walk-in distances of any district in the metro area: one mile for elementary school students, 1.5 miles for middle school students and two miles for high school students. That means that students who live farther than those distances are eligible for bus transportation. So every day, more than 22,000 students take the bus to and from school.
To compensate for the driver shortage, nearly every qualified transportation employee, including mechanics, office staff, route planners and dispatchers, have been driving daily routes. That means those employees have been staying after hours or coming in on weekends to catch up with their regular duties. But even with that “all hands on deck” approach, many routes have been running late.
“Some people think the delays are related to the change in start times,” Carriveau said. “But that’s not the case at all. We simply do not have enough drivers to cover all of our routes. That means that some drivers are covering more than one route, and as a result, they get behind schedule.”
Carriveau explained that can have a snowball effect, impacting the middle school routes the most, because they follow the elementary and high school routes. Routes and bus stop times are constantly being adjusted to improve on-time performance and the Transportation Department is calling parents to notify them when their child’s bus is running late.
The real solution is continuing to hire and train more drivers, a process that takes a minimum of four weeks. The good news is that CCSD is making progress: two classes with a total of 20 recruits are going through training now and will be on the job later this month and in early November.
“Our commitment to Cherry Creek families is to provide safe, reliable and on-time transportation to all eligible students every day,” Carriveau said. “We won’t rest until we reach that goal.”
If you or someone you know would like more information about becoming a bus driver in Cherry Creek Schools, visit http://www.cherrycreekschools.org/Transportation/Pages/default.aspx.