The Southern Cayuga Central School District needs three bus driving positions filled before the 2019-20 school year starts, and Loretta Van Horn said she is not confident about meeting that goal.

Van Horn, the district's business administrator, said Southern Cayuga is hiring for a head bus driver position and two regular bus driver spots. As of Wednesday, because there were no applicants with school set to start Sept. 4 for the district, she planned to slide some substitute drivers into those vacant slots for a little while.

That driver shortage strain has been felt beyond Cayuga County, as districts across the state have experienced similar issues recruiting qualified drivers, as districts scramble to determine their next steps.

The shortage is not new. The Auburn Enlarged City School School District had to work with limousine company Big D's Limos during the 2018-19 school year to take charter buses to away games and other extracurricular events since the district's contracted transportation provider, First Student, had been seven drivers short in September 2018.

According to a February 2019 report from the New York State School Boards Association, the New York Association for Pupil Transportation and the National Association for Pupil Transportation, eight in 10 school transportation directors "consider driver shortage either their number one problem/concern or a major problem/concern."

Al Marlin, communications manager for the school boards association, said the importance of bus drivers is often overlooked, but they can have a "significant impact on student learning and safety."

The report said the biggest factor impacting shortages is the U.S. Department of Transportation's requirement that drivers have a commercial drivers license to operate large or hazardous vehicles. Obtaining that certification can be a burdensome hurdle for prospective drivers to overcome, the report said, and "recently enacted federal law" altered how the state Department of Motor Vehicles holds road tests for people to receive licenses.

These issues, the report said, include a limited number of road test sites across the state, prompting longer travel for applicants, the test period being longer than it had been previously, and the brake check component of the test resulting "in automatic failure if not completed in a precisely prescribed manner." The report said another obstacle is the "pre-trip component emphasizes maintenance and structure of the vehicle; however, school bus drivers almost universally are not responsible for vehicle maintenance and are not expected to be able to perform more than basic repairs of their buses in the event of a breakdown." 

Further, the report said the license is marketable to employers, and drivers with them can "find many forms of employment that address their work desires. This includes driving tow trucks, tractor trailers and non-school related buses."

Auburn district Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo said its driver woes were an issue throughout last school year, even with the limousine company assisting in the district's "time of crisis." Drivers had to take on Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES routes in the afternoons and then take other Auburn students home, causing delays, he said, adding that those issues were worsened when anyone in that already small fleet became sick or was otherwise unable to work. He said the Auburn district also includes homeless students in faraway areas such as Syracuse, Seneca Falls and Cato.

On Wednesday, Pirozzolo said he had previously been told by First Student that they would have enough staff for the upcoming school year, but the district was planning to meet with the company "within the next week" to confirm if they'll be able to meet the district's needs. If they aren't able to, First Student could subcontract to another company to cover Auburn's extracurricular runs, Pirozzolo said, or Auburn will have to go out to bid for a contractor to cover those routes.

First Student has made efforts to attract new drivers, Pirozzolo said, with increased salaries, recruitment incentives and sign-on bonuses.

"I'm hoping that the salaries become more reflective of the work that they have to do every day," he said.

Pirozzolo said bus drivers help set a school district's tone and culture since they are often the first and last school-related people students see in a day. They also have to balance safely navigating roads with building relationships with children to encourage good behavior, he said.

Union Springs Central School District Superintendent Jarett Powers was optimistic, as of last week, about finding people for at least three bus driver spots for the year. He noted the district has been posting the positions for months, saying bus drivers are "mission critical" to the district, since they get students to and from school safely and ensure they can attend extracurricular opportunities and field trips.

Powers said the district was also looking for substitute bus drivers, since "we never turn a substitute bus driver away," in addition to the driver positions. The district has had postings on the employment search engine Indeed, Facebook and Twitter, and sent postcards to district residents, he said.

When asked what the district would do if it can't bring in people for those driver jobs, Powers paused.

"That's a great question," he said. "I don't know that I have a great answer for you. We'd have to work to consolidate routes, we'd have to limit our after school availability, we'd have to limit how far we travel for away competitions, we'd have to really scale back things that we do with kids."

Van Horn said Southern Cayuga is exploring all available options in order to fill its driver roles. "Worst comes to worse, if I had to," she would pursue a commercial driver's license and transport the district's children. She said a recently retired district employee became licensed to drive a bus and will be acting as a substitute.

"One way or another, we'll make it work," she said.

All hope is not lost, as the school boards association report said the DMV had worked over the past year to reduce the obstacles to getting commercial licenses, including further opening up testing availability to weekend appointments, increasing the number of testing sites that meet federal requirements and "training and preparing examiners for the new testing regimen to increase consistency among them and their approach to the test." The report also suggested approaches school districts could take to boost driver numbers, including free or paid training, expanding their potential recruitment targets to recent high school and college graduates who are 21 or older, and promoting the career with the message "that being a school bus driver is a noble and worthy profession." 

District officials agree that bus drivers are ultimately vital to education.

"Without a bus driver, we can't get the kids here so the rest of our jobs are not needed, right?" Van Horn said. "You've got to have kids."

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Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.