Most of Bend-La Pine Schools’ transportation office staff and fleet mechanics have been driving school bus routes daily, filling the gap as many bus driver positions remain vacant.
School districts across Central Oregon have experienced difficulty hiring classified staff, particularly bus drivers. The competitive labor market, especially for low-wage workers, is part of a national trend that has left school districts competing with the private sector for workers.
“We are hopeful that the situation will ease in coming weeks, as we have several individuals currently in training slated to become drivers,” Kim Crabtree, the school district’s director of transportation, said in an email. Crabtree has also been driving school bus routes, according to the district.
Since school started in days following Labor Day, parents have told The Bulletin that their children have waited at bus stops for more than an hour, and in some cases, they were picked up for school after school already started.
The school district said that while school buses have been regularly late, most routes have been running close to scheduled times. Crabtree said delays are typical at the start of the school year, and that new drivers, increased traffic due to the start of school and new stops throughout the district have contributed to the delays.
“With most office staff driving, we have delays in returning calls and making adjustments to routes,” Crabtree said. “This year, we have asked all families to register for transportation, so we can best assign drivers and routes and assign seats for contact tracing. Our transportation staff is working hard to get all folks assigned to routes, and staff worked Saturday to get late registries assigned to buses.”
Melissa Barnes Dholakia, the chairwoman of the Bend-La Pine School Board, asked that parents give the school district grace during the first week of the school year.
“We have had to redesign routes along with start times in order to maximize the number of drivers that we have to make sure that every child who needs transportation has it available for them. And so that means new routes,” Barnes Dholakia said.
“Drivers, even our returning drivers, are doing new routes. Things are different, and so it’s naturally going to be a little bit slower those first few days as we’re getting used to those, and as our kids are getting used to getting on and off the bus after two years. They need to line up and be ready as well.”
Barnes Dholakia said her son’s bus was late the first two days, but was close to on time on Monday.
“We will work out those kinks with our system and just really try and make sure that we’ve got a great transportation system within the confines we have,” she said.