Galveston Independent School District officials are worried about school buses running late because of a driver shortage.
“At the beginning of the year, I was feeling happy,” said John Pruitt, director of transportation for the district. “Over the summer, we had trained and had qualified drivers for all the routes. Right after the storm, we still had drivers. Then, all of a sudden, we lost seven drivers.”
The sudden loss of seven bus drivers this week is particularly hurtful to a district with only 46 total routes, Pruitt said.
The problem is not unique to the island school district.
Clear Creek, Dickinson, Santa Fe, Friendswood and Texas City school districts also list openings for bus drivers on their websites.
A job posting on Clear Creek Independent School District’s website even offers $300 signing bonuses to bus drivers.
School districts across the state are having difficulty finding bus drivers because of competition, higher standards and inherent aspects of the job, school officials said.
“It’s pretty much all hands on deck right now to cover the void,” Pruitt said.
District officials tried to warn parents about potential issues arising from the loss.
“The transportation department had been calling parents to let them know that we are short on bus drivers,” spokeswoman Dyann Polzin said.
The message is that the district has had to combine some routes and that pickup times might be later and students might be getting home later.
The district has asked parents to be mindful of possible delays and encourages them to stay with students until a bus arrives.
Because the district’s “schools of choice” program allows families to choose which island school to attend, the busing situation is even further complicated because students living on the West End might be bused to schools far east and vice versa, Polzin said.
“We don’t want parents to drop off their 3-year-old if we know the bus is going to be delayed,” Polzin said.
A 2016 survey found only 11 percent of national school bus contracting companies reported having enough drivers, district officials said.
“We aren’t the highest-paying entity for bus drivers, but we aren’t the lowest either,” Polzin said. “They’ll come in and we’ll pay for their training. We even have trainers to help them get certified for their CDL license. Once they’re trained, they become a hot commodity.”
Also complicating the matter is the Texas Department of Public Safety’s decision to consolidate testing locations for commercial driver’s licenses from about 150 locations down to 25.
“We have people driving all the way to Livingston to take the test when they used to be able to go to Texas City,” Pruitt said.
Schools districts across the county have started offering incentives, including full benefits, paid training and rewards for accident-free milestones to lure applicants, school officials said.
Other districts in the state have had shortages so bad that regular teachers and even a superintendent have been forced to take on bus driving as well.
The seven bus drivers that left recently departed the island for myriad reasons, Pruitt said.
“Some were retired and came to work and realized it wasn’t for them anymore,” Pruitt said. “I have some drivers taking care of ailing parents.”
Still, others departed for higher-paying jobs at districts in the rest of the county and in other fields, Pruitt said.
“There’s really nothing we can do to keep them here,” Polzin said. “They can go up the road, across the causeway, and make $1 or 50 cents more per hour and they’ll do that.”
Transportation officials are working to recruit drivers through a variety of ways, including talking to people attending Lone Star Rally about possibly moving to Galveston, Pruitt said.
But even if the district is able to entice seven new drivers to replace the outgoing employees, the deeper issue of bus driver shortages won’t just go away, Pruitt said.
“We should already be looking for four to seven more drivers in addition to the seven,” Pruitt said. “Sometime between now and the end of the year, we’ll hit a rut again. Everyone is vying for the same people.”