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School bus drivers remain in short supply...

Ever since school started in late August, the Kenmare School District has been looking for a bus driver to fill a fifth position.

9/25/18 (Tue)

Ever since school started in late August, the Kenmare School District has been looking for a bus driver to fill a fifth position.

Former driver Joddy Meidinger took another job and is no longer available to drive the route.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Two other Kenmare drivers have been driving 50 years or more. Herb Schwede and Marshall Johnson are both considering retiring and if the current position isn’t filled, there could very well be a huge shortage in a year or two.

Nearly every school district in North Dakota has at least one opening. These days it’s rare to find a full staff of bus drivers.

As an example, a check of Job Service North Dakota indicated 41 bus driver openings in 19 districts. They include six openings in West Fargo, six at Harlow’s Bus Service and five at Jamestown.

And those are just the openings listed with Job Service. Many others are advertised locally or regionally and don’t always get onto the statewide list.

There are several variables that make it difficult for schools to fill driver positions. First is pay, second is daily schedule and third is obtaining a commercial drivers license.

“The best recruitment comes down to wages,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler told The Kenmare News. “If you can pay a lucrative wage, you’ll get drivers. It’s a situation that our school leaders face every year.

As it stands, bus driver wages are all over the board, and in a sense, it’s like comparing apples to oranges.

Examples include Jamestown paying $20 per hour, Bismarck Public Schools, $17.81 and West Fargo $15.26. Minot Public Schools has one of the highest wages in the state at $21.65 per hour.

Others pay by the day or are listed as an annual salary. Richardton pays $79 a day, Lakota has a range from $44.87 to $89.74 per day depending on experience and Harlow’s doesn’t list a wage, but is offering sign on bonuses.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests North Dakota’s average wage of $20.99 per hour is among the highest in the nation.

In some cases, those wages appear to be worth looking into. However, most drivers are on staff about five hours a day, split up between morning and night.

And that’s a huge sticking point for a lot of people who might be eligible to drive. Their current job won’t allow them to take off a couple of hours in the morning and a couple of hours in the afternoon.

Schwede, who is going on his 51st year of driving, said he’s been lucky in a sense. He’s worked for people in the Donnybrook area or has tended to his own livestock, giving him the time to devote to driving bus.

He says people, especially young people, can’t find it possible to juggle positions like he’s been able to do.

According to Baesler, drivers like Schwede and Johnson are worth their weight in gold. They know the routes, they know the parents and the kids and their habits, they’re committed and loyal to their districts and they continue driving because they like doing it.

“As school board president (in Flasher), I thanked the drivers every year for their job and being a friendly face to the kids,” Baesler said. “It’s an incredibly important job.”

But Baesler is confident the shortage today hasn’t reached a crisis level as it did in 2014 during the oil boom.

“Many licensed drivers took oilfield jobs,” she said. “Now, the oil patch is picking up again, but it’s not at its peak like it was during the oil boom.”

Most districts have raised their rate of pay, but others, including Kenmare, are becoming creative in how they seek out new drivers.

Baesler said district administrators tell her the most successful way to get new drivers is through sign on bonuses.

Other options are available, as Kenmare School Board member Amy Ones pointed out. Ones is on a committee to find a driver and she has been placing ads in The Kenmare News in hopes of finding someone to fill the vacancy.

She said Kenmare pays a base salary that includes route mileage reimbursement as well as health insurance and a retirement plan.

“Drivers don’t have to work weekends, evenings or holidays,” Ones said. “The downside is they should be able to drive in variable weather conditions.”

As an option to filling the Kenmare vacancy, the route has the flexibility to be shared between two potential drivers to make it more attractive.

Ones said if one applicant is available to drive in the morning and another in the afternoon, problem solved.

“Additionally, the route could be split where one driver could work Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the other driver could take Tuesday and Thursday,” she said. “Another option is to have one driver responsible for the fall and spring months, while the other covers the winter months. The school is open to working with individuals so that we are able to ensure that our students have safe and reliable transportation to and from school.”

Solutions are always generated locally, according to Baesler, and some have teachers, administrators and janitors driving bus.

In Wahpeton, Superintendent Rick Jacobson and athletic director Michael McCall both drive, recently retired Berthold principal Peggy Person drove bus as did former Parshall Superintendent Steve Cascaden.

Central Cass has reached a point of considering contracting so the private company is responsible for hiring and not the district.

The Maine Labor and Education Department offers free training to veterans interested in driving and mechanics.

Baesler said DPI works with the North Dakota Highway Patrol to train drivers and share ideas.

“There are innovative ways to solve this problem,” Baesler said. “There’s no doubt, all districts are facing a challenge. It’s as urgent as anything in the private sector.”

In Kenmare, applicants will be reimbursed for the costs associated with licensing and annual medical physical... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!