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El Paso County Colorado District 49

School bus driver shortage

The National Association of Pupil Transportation conducted a pre-pandemic survey of school transportation professionals, and found that 87% of respondents reported that the bus driver shortage is a major problem; 70% said it is only getting worse. According to a†School Bus Fleet survey, 91% of districts across the country report issues with bus staffing.Jack Pietraallo, director of transportation for El Paso County Colorado School District 49, said they usually employ about 85 school bus drivers; at present, they have 43. He said the surrounding districts are having the same issues.Pietraallo said D 49 employs a transportation support staff of about 20 people, including mechanics and dispatchers. In the past, they dealt with shortages by having staff cover those routes. They donít even have enough staff to cover all the needed routes at present; consequently, they are offering limited transportation services, he said.As a result, the district created walking zones around each school to provide a guideline for the students who need to walk to school, based on age/grade and distance, he said. Some of the distances might be longer or shorter than the recommendations because they used busy roads and sidewalks as their barriers to keep the students safe, Pietraallo said. ìWe want to make sure weíre not putting our kids in danger crossing a major thoroughfare.îThe transportation department is no longer able to support field trips or sports and academic events because of the lack of drivers, Pietraallo said. Typically, there are 16 AP (all purpose) drivers who work nights, weekends and field trips that would cover those events; they have two at present, he said.Pietraallo said he vetted about four of the local transportation companies in town and gave those contacts to the school principals so they could book trips through the outside companies. He said the problem is that every district in town is doing the same, so their services are limited. ìPlus, they are short of bus drivers, too,î Pietraallo said.The schools generate about 1,000 field trips a year; the outings were in the double digits this past school year, he said. ìItís tearing us apart, because thatís why weíre here; we feel like weíre letting our kids down because we canít support them in the way weíre used to,î he said.The problem is also affecting the parents. It can be a challenge for them to supply transportation; they might have to change shifts at work to get their kids to school, because weíre not able to provide it, Pietraallo said.D 49 is actively recruiting drivers at job fairs and through online companies; the applications are barely coming in, he said. They are offering a $500 referral bonus for all D 49 employees and a $1,000 signup bonus to drivers who go through training, become licensed and are hired.He said D 49 is a great company to work for. ìWe pay you while you get your CDL (commercial driver license), give you a hiring bonus; drivers receive full-time benefits for part-time work (about five hours a day/25 hours a week), plus have approximately four months a year of paid time off,î Pietraallo said.The Colorado Department of Education provides a yearly report to the school districts regarding how much money they will receive per student; the rate came out 4% higher than D 49 expected, he said. ìThis is good news because we will be able to offer very competitive pay starting this next school year,î Pietraallo said. They will vote on the exact pay increase at the June board meeting.ìWe would love to come back to the new school year with a full bus schedule, but weíre at a crunch time as we basically have the summer to get the drivers trained and licensed; it takes about six to eight weeks for someone to get their CDL,î he said. ìWe are nowhere close to filling those positions right now; and, unless we can hire some folks, weíll have to continue reduced routes.îPietraallo said driving a school bus is often not what everyone expects. ìI was one of those guys; I was like, there is no way Iím going to drive a bus full of kids; but, until you do it and live it, you donít realize what it means and how fulfilling it really is.î

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