Wichita district faces critical shortage of school bus drivers

The Wichita Eagle

The worst bus driver shortage in recent years is affecting Wichita schools, officials say, with families reporting more frequent delays, missed pickups, late drop-offs and other issues.

“It’s never been to this point,” said Fabian Armendariz, director of transportation for the Wichita district.

“We’re doing our best with what we have. It’s just that we don’t have the manpower right now,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is just getting drivers.”

First Student, the Cincinnati-based private company that provides bus service for Wichita schools, issued a call Wednesday for applicants to boost its pool of drivers, offering a $500 signing bonus to attract more people to the job.

The company will hold a hiring event March 17, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the First Student north bus lot, 4141 N. Seneca.

“We need people to drive for us, so we’re planning a big push,” said Kary Dixon, senior location manager for First Student in Wichita.

“This is the lowest our driver pool has been in the six years that we’ve had the contract” with Wichita schools, Dixon said.

17,000number of Wichita students who ride school buses each day

418number of buses serving Wichita schools

First Student’s 418-bus fleet transports about 17,000 Wichita students to and from schools each day, Dixon said. Currently the company employs about 515 drivers, including substitute drivers, those on leave and those who work only mornings or only afternoons.

“We need more than that to function,” Dixon said.

Officials say lower unemployment in the Wichita area means fewer people are applying to be bus drivers. Starting pay for a First Student driver, a part-time position, is $13 an hour.

“Our numbers got low as we got to the last weeks of school (last year) and some of our drivers looked for summer jobs,” said Armendariz, the transportation director. “But it certainly has never been to this point this early in the year.”

We’re doing our best with what we have. It’s just that we don’t have the manpower right now.

Fabian Armendariz, director of transportation for Wichita schools

Districts nationwide are reporting school bus driver shortages. According to a survey last fall by School Bus Fleet magazine, only 6 percent of school bus contracting companies nationally had enough drivers this school year, compared with 15 percent that reported no shortage in 2014. Nearly a third of districts said they are facing a “severe or desperate” shortage of drivers.

In Wichita most days, some drivers call in sick and employees from other departments – dispatch, safety services and elsewhere – have to cover their routes, Dixon said. Sometimes the district combines two routes into one, which means more crowded buses, longer rides and later arrivals for students.

“We understand the frustration that parents are having, and we certainly are frustrated ourselves,” Armendariz said.

The district aims to get students to school at least 15 minutes before the starting bell, he said. In recent months, because of bus delays and rerouting, some students are getting to school late or with just a few minutes to spare.

“It’s creating an added level of stress not only for us, but for the schools, too,” Armendariz said.

Troy Barnes, a First Student driver, said he applied for the job five years ago, thinking he’d work just a few months. He ended up liking the work and his interaction with students.

“They all know me. I say ‘Good morning’ to them when I pick them up, and ‘Have a good day’ when I drop them off,” Barnes said. “My preschool kids, I even sing to them.

“I happen to like it. This is a good job.”

Applicants must be at least 21, have a valid state driver’s license and at least three years’ driving experience and be able to pass a background check and drug screen.

First Student provides training for drivers to get their commercial driver’s license. The training, including classroom and on-the-road lessons, takes about two weeks, Dixon said.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias