PHOENIX — School bus drivers are critically important to getting students to and from school safely, but many districts are having difficulty recruiting and retaining them due to low unemployment and the strong economy.

“When you can start a kid’s day well, they’re more apt and prone to go and learn. When you can end a kid’s day well, they’re more apt and prone to go home and be positive with their parents,” said Dr. Matt Strom, associate superintendent of business services for Queen Creek Unified School District. “There’s no better job where you get to really have that influence of starting and finishing a child’s day right.”

That means school buses are classrooms on wheels, and school bus drivers play a key role in helping students get ready to learn each day, Strom said.

“Bus drivers are the main conduit for over 50 percent of our kids to get to and from the learning experiences that they’ll be having throughout the school day,” Strom said.

School bus drivers contribute significantly to efforts to create a safe and supportive school environment by “driving ever so carefully and defensively, as well as fostering positive relationships with bus riders,” said Richard Moore, director of transportation for Dysart Unified School District.

“The thing I love the most is seeing a student excited to show me some of their work or an achievement they were recognized for. To think that a driver-student relationship can be so rewarding is truly amazing,” said Paul Greer, a bus driver for Dysart Unified School District.

The importance of school bus drivers

School bus drivers and bus aides provide vital educational and other related services for students with special needs as detailed in their individualized educational plans, Moore said.

School bus drivers bring students “to school ready to learn and to athletic venues focused to win,” Moore said.

Bus drivers keep in mind that each student is a kid first and foremost, Greer said.

“Each one represents a completely different set of values and often a different social background; this could easily be lost in just trying to manage a bus full of students,” Greer said. “Each child deserves to be treated with genuine concern and understanding, which is challenging when dealing with traffic and other duties of a driver.”

Working with students is so rewarding because “we have the opportunity to show the students that we care about their future,” Greer said.

“When a student understands that you are not just correcting them, but that you care for their safety and well-being, you know you have made an impact,” Greer said.

“When I hear ‘Mr. Bus Driver, you are the best bus driver ever,’ ‘We love you,’ or ‘Will you be our driver next year?’ I know they feel safe and confident that they will be taken care of,” Greer said.

Greer said one of the things he likes about working for Dysart Unified School District is “the idea that we as a team can affect change in our community, and my job affords me that opportunity.”

“I would love to see the bus drivers have a night to meet the parents and talk about the roles and responsibilities that each person could play in each child’s development,” Greer said.

When asked what he would say to someone considering being a bus driver, Greer said, “Don’t take this job if you think you can just manage kids and drive a bus. If you want to be an important part of a young person’s life, then you have what it takes.”

Challenges in recruiting school bus drivers

Recruiting school bus drivers at this time is challenging, Moore said.

“Given the robust economy in our region, and the availability of other commercial driver jobs as well as those at surrounding school districts, the volume of applicants has decreased,” Moore said. “It seems the low rate of unemployment within our area is contributing to the low number of applicants.”

For several years, a banner has hung outside Alhambra Elementary School District’s transportation office that says the district is seeking bus drivers and highlights competitive salaries offered by the Phoenix-area school district.

When the economy is doing well — like it is now — drivers can explore a variety of opportunities as businesses grow, and that puts stress on a variety of positions throughout school districts, including bus drivers, Strom said.

What’s working to retain school bus drivers

Several strategies are helping Dysart Unified successfully recruit and retain school bus drivers, Moore said.

“Many of our school bus drivers reside within our district and are long-term, devoted employees,” Moore said. “Fostering esprit de corps along with positive culture and climate are contributing greatly to our retention of school bus drivers.”

Dysart Unified’s superintendent and administration have ensured that resources are available for school bus driver recruitment efforts, including online job boards, newspaper advertising, outreach through participation at local civic events such as public safety fair, spring job fair and more, posting large employment banners in public places, using school marquees and publishing information in school lunch menus sent to parents, Moore said.

“The district has devoted resources to sustain a competitive pay rate for school bus drivers among our neighboring school districts and maintains strong health benefits as well,” Moore said.

Earlier this month, Phoenix Union High School District shared that its school bus drivers would be getting a significant raise for the next school year, reflecting the severe shortage and high demand for bus drivers throughout the state.

Also, the transportation management team strives each day to strengthen relationships with each school bus driver by connecting, showing interest and providing all support possible on the job and during tough times, Moore said.

Visits by the superintendent and other district administration at transportation team meetings to connect and interact with school bus drivers also helps retention, as do recognition of safe driving, perfect attendance and notes of commendation from department management, Moore said.

“Enhancing our recruitment and retention efforts could come through increasing hourly pay, providing longevity pay or bonuses to our current employees, acquisition of new school buses and stronger relationships with school administration in effectively addressing student behaviors,” Moore said.

To attract and retain school bus drivers, Queen Creek Unified’s transportation department is building a culture centered around student safety first and ensuring that buses and equipment are of high quality.

“We realize that happiness in employment is about a variety of different things — pay and wages being one of them, benefits being another and the culture of the environment you work in,” Strom said.

Also, Queen Creek Unified is in the middle of a salary study to help determine if the district’s wages are competitive in this economy, Strom said.

Queen Creek is a growing district, which means there are “opportunities for people to grow their careers in any department — whether that’s teaching and learning, or whether that’s transportation, or whether that’s business services,” Strom said.

When asked what would help school districts recruit and retain more school bus drivers, Strom said, “From a political standpoint, we know that increased funding from the state over the past five years, in particular, has been great.

It also helps that Queen Creek voters and taxpayers have supported the school district’s bonds and overrides, Strom said.

“When our local taxpayers support those things, we can buy more buses and have a fleet management system in place where we can keep our fleet relatively up to date,” Strom said, adding that also helps keep salaries competitive.

Highlights, challenges and more

Providing transportation services for students is challenging and rewarding each day, Moore said.

Among the highlights are each day that school bus drivers safely transport students to and from school without an incident and the dedicated transportation staff members who make it happen — bus drivers, dispatchers, routers, ESS staff, trainers, fleet maintenance, technical support and management, Moore said.

Challenges include adequately covering all school bus routes, buses that are out of service for inspection or repair, flash flooding along routes, road construction detours or closures, early release days and making sure there are enough available buses for field trip requests, Moore said.

School bus drivers provide a critically important service to their community.

“Why do school bus drivers do what they do? Certainly, for many reasons such as enjoying working with students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, an affinity for driving and satisfaction from navigating around busy suburban neighborhoods, knowing they are significantly contributing to the students’ education and preparation for their future, enjoying transporting students, coaches, teachers on various athletic, band and extracurricular activities that enrich students’ school experience, and having summers off to enjoy family and other fun pursuits,” Moore said.

“I think there’s no better opportunity in education to start and end a student’s day with just a rich and happy experience,” Strom said.

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