CUSD teachers, staffers may fill in for school bus drivers The Chandler Arizonan

CUSD teachers, staffers may fill in for school bus drivers

CUSD teachers, staffers may fill in for school bus drivers
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By Kevin Reagan

Arizonan Staff Writer

 

The shortage of licensed bus drivers continues to plague school districts across Arizona and has for the last few years but the Chandler Unified School District is implementing a new strategy to offset it.

The district may have up to 18 vacancies for bus drivers at any given time, resulting in drivers working more overtime and a greater reliance on charter buses to transport students to extracurricular activities. 

Steve Hewitt, Chandler Unified’s transportation director, said the lack of drivers has not forced CUSD to cancel any driving routes, but his staff looked for creative ways to be more efficient with their resources.  

One strategy involves buying smaller vehicles and letting teachers drive them to after-school events. Instead of dispatching a large bus to transport a handful of students, the district’s planning to rely more on existing staff to take on some driving duties. 

On Jan. 22, the CUSD Governing Board authorized spending $1.5 million on 30 new vans and mini buses to be driven by teachers and coaches. 

These smaller vehicles don’t require a commercial driver’s license – unlike a regular school bus – making it easier for school personnel to operate them. 

Hewitt added all staff members are vetted before they’re allowed to transport students to sports games or science fairs.

“All drivers of activity vans and buses go through a training and have their driving record run by the district,” Hewitt said.

Certification for driving an 84-passenger school bus can be a lengthy process including passing multiple exams and a medical evaluation. Rather than having staff jump through hoops to get certified, the district’s investing in smaller vehicles most staff should be able to operate. 

Adding to the district’s fleet of vans will permit staff to not rely so much on certified drivers for transportation, according to CUSD Chief Financial Officer, Lana Berry. 

“This allows our coaches to have the flexibility to drive to and from events without having to wait for a bus,” Berry said. 

The district’s insurance provider already covers all its vehicles and the people who operate them, Berry added, so Chandler Unified won’t have to obtain more coverage for teachers driving vans. 

School districts across Arizona have been adjusting its operations in recent years due to a lack of available bus drivers. 

Kyrene School District and Gilbert and Mesa public schools changed their bell schedules last year to better cope with the shortage and Mesa and Gilbert also boosted wages for drivers in an effort to entice more applicants.  

Administrators of the Sahuarita Unified School District have had to get behind the wheel themselves and pick up some bus routes.  

Students in the Scottsdale Unified School District have repeatedly been late for school because drivers have had to take on additional routes.

Repeated late arrivals also prompted Gilbert Public Schools to change its bell schedule after a district study found nearly two-thirds of all buses were arriving at school late.

When the economy’s doing well, school districts regularly experience a deficit in applications for low-paying service jobs and compete with each other for drivers. 

Chandler Unified is no exception to this trend, Hewitt added, and struggles to hire and retain enough drivers to transport 13,000 students every day. 

In addition to the new vans and mini buses, the district has spent $860,000 on six new 48-passenger buses for its growing population of special education students and $714,000 on replacing four 84-passenger buses. The district is using money from a 2015 bond initiative to fund the new vehicles.

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