Bus drivers in short supply at Butler County school districts
With the closing of Butler Middle School, Butler Area School District has one less destination to transport students to and from this school year.
Routes are shorter. It’s a little easier to manage. But it’s still challenging to staff the buses.
The transportation staff is able to just maintain “smooth operations,” said Tabitha Scutt, transportation director at Butler Area School District.
“As of now, we have enough drivers, but our routes are very full. Ideally, we would have about 10 more daily drivers,” she said.
John Demkowicz, director of transportation at Seneca Valley, said the school district uses two providers, Valley Lines and ABC Transport, to convey the 8,500 students who ride buses throughout the district.
Despite the two providers, Demkowicz described the bus staffing situation in the district as “critical.” Route planners work to optimize drive times every year, but this year, it’s especially important considering the shortage in drivers.
“We have looked at our routes this year just to see where our buses are and utilize efficiency of our vehicles more effectively, trying to leave rider times as unaffected as possible,” Demkowicz said. “Even just a single additional driver call off can be a catastrophic event where significant delays or cancellations occur.”
Just like any other employee, bus drivers too have vacation time and occasionally need to call off sick.
Patrick Sarnese, director of transportation at Knoch School District, said the district’s contractor, W. L. Roenigk, employs substitutes to cover for regular drivers.
“All the routes are covered,” he said. “Roenigk have people who would be inside the building, staff members who are out driving. Substitute drivers are always needed.”
Sarnese also said the number of drivers at the school district has been declining for a number of years. He attributes the difficulty in maintaining a full driver base to the job’s schedule.
Hours are roughly 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
“The hours are difficult,” Sarnese said. “Getting somebody who can cover those kind of hours can be hard.”
In the Karns City Area School District, which contracts with Shriver Bus Company, substitutes also are limited.
“We're able to run our operation, but we probably don't have as many subs as we used to,” said Jeff Wagner, transportation director at Karns City Area School District. “We're not in as bad of a shortage as some school districts, but we could use (more substitute driver).”
According to Wagner, the district has 33 bus routes this year, two fewer than last year. Approximately 1,300 students in the district ride a bus, and the longest route is a little more than an hour, Wagner said.
He also said the number of bus riders in the district typically stays consistent over the course of the school year, but last year there was a little more shifting of students.
“There was more movement last year and then it kind of stabilized coming out of COVID-19 with kids going into more regular in-person classes,” Wagner said.
Christina Smith, director of transportation at Mars Area School District, said school districts are also responsible for transporting students who attend private school and live within the district’s borders. A high number of private school students can add a lot to a bus contractor’s plate.
“We have 30 public school routes and approximately 10 private school routes,” Smith said. “About 3,500 students a day ride the bus total in the district.”
This school year, Butler Area budgeted $6,026,913 for transportation; Mars budgeted $3,223,106; Seneca Valley School District budgeted about $8.5 million, Knoch budgeted $2,834,004; Karns City budgeted $2,362,625; and Slippery Rock budgeted $1,939,600.
Knoch’s Sarnese said the cost of fuel this year had a noticeable impact on the amount budgeted for transportation.
“Since COVID and the rising fuel costs, it has increased our budget significantly,” Sarnese said.
Paul Cessar, business manager for Slippery Rock Area School District, said the district splits the bill for diesel with its contractor, Student Transportation of America, if the price rises above a certain threshold. The maximum diesel price this year is $2.41, Cessar said.
Demkowicz said both contracts in Seneca Valley, which are set to expire in 2025, were drawn up to include the cost of fuel up to a certain price.
“A lot of it had to do with driver shortages and the increase in driver pay. It’s such a tight labor market,” Cessar said. “We have all the routes filled, and if we hadn’t increased, I don’t think we would have that.”
While the hours bus drivers work are unorthodox compared to the average full-time job, many drivers are actually drawn to taking the job for the interesting schedule.
Alfonso Angelucci, superintendent of Slippery Rock Area School District, said a lot of drivers at the district drive buses to work around their children’s schedule.
The schedule “can be attractive for somebody, even a parent who has kids at school,” Angelucci said. “Sometimes they can have the morning run, they can work in the afternoon.”
School districts have to approve the hiring of bus drivers before a contractor can put them on a route.
“You don't have to have a CDL license, you can have a class D license, and they will train you,” Smith said. “We get sent a list of drivers, we give a background check.”
Smith also said people can apply to be a bus driver at Mars Area School District with a regular, Class D driver’s license, and they can undergo training through A.J. Myers and Sons, the district’s contractor.
This process was similarly described by the other Butler County school district transportation directors.
According to Sarnese, the CDL license is transferable from school district to school district.
“Everyone has to be properly licensed, have the regular clearances for the commonwealth,” Sarnese said.
Scutt encouraged people to apply to be a bus driver if the job interests them, because the job does have some unique perks.
“It has been years since we had an abundant number of drivers,” Scutt said. “Valley Lines is always looking for more drivers. It’s an inviting job for retirees and those seeking part-time pay.”
Demkowicz agreed, and said the contractors at Seneca Valley will work with a person’s schedule to find them a route that fits.
“If there is someone available for a.m. or just p.m. or just a couple days a week, they could work with that,” he said.
Scutt also said with school back in session and buses back on the roads that other drivers should exercise caution when driving near a school bus.
“Please be aware, especially at the beginning of the year, that it will take extra time for students to load and unload at stops,” Scutt said. “Please be patient — for many little ones, this is a new experience.”