Busing emergencies don’t happen often, but when they do, Centre County public school districts, and the transportation companies they use, have backup plans.
When a bus driver for the Bellefonte Area School District couldn’t make a shift last school year, a mechanic filled in.
“It happened once or twice last year,” district Business Manager and Transportation Director Ken Bean said. “There are usually a few subs, but sometimes someone else needs to step up. ... At least one mechanic has their CDL (commercial driver’s license) license in case of emergencies like that.”
Bellefonte Area has contracts with three companies to provide transportation service for the district: D&D Transportation Services, Eagle Valley Bus Co. and Fullington Trailways.
Bean said transportation services are provided for children within the district who attend Bellefonte Area schools, and for students within the district but attend other schools, such as charter or private schools within 10 miles from district boundaries.
With about 35 vehicles, the hope each year, he said, is to have enough drivers per route, in addition to a handful of substitute drivers.
“How we run things is really no different this year than most other years,” Bean said. “We use those companies, and they’re in charge of getting employees.”
This summer, the district allowed Fullington Trailways to set up signs at district schools to advertise for more drivers.
There isn’t an abundance of drivers, but we have enough to cover what we need and enough to start the school year.
Ken Bean, Bellefonte Area business manager/transportation director
“There isn’t an abundance of drivers, but we have enough to cover what we need and enough to start the school year,” Bean said.
Nationally, there is a school bus driver shortage.
The Associated Press reported earlier this month that several school districts are resorting to new options to “fill the gap.”
A program in Maine was created to encourage military veterans to apply for transportation positions such as bus drivers and mechanics. It includes free training through the state’s labor and education departments for veterans interested in that work.
While there isn’t necessarily a driver shortage at local school districts, administrators said they’re looking ahead of the trend to make sure that’s not a problem in the future.
“State College Area School District hasn’t experienced a shortage similar to that at the national level, (but) we do experience turnover in our staff, which causes us to recruit more frequently than we would desire,” district Business Manager Randy Brown said in an email.
District Director of Transportation Van Swauger said they execute recruitment efforts, communicate with drivers through the summer and at in-service days held prior to the start of school, and maintain a team of substitutes.
“We have not experienced a shortage, but we like to maintain a roster of 45 to 50 employees, (including) substitutes,” he said.
At State College Area, 96 buses are used — 50 of which are owned and operated by the district and its employees. The rest are owned and operated by outside agencies the district contracts with.
The primary benefit for the district in using the private carriers lies in the decreased need for district-owned buses and district employees.
Randy Brown, SCASD business manager
“The primary benefit for the district in using the private carriers lies in the decreased need for district-owned buses and district employees,” Brown said.
For the 2017-18 school year, it will cost Bellefonte Area about $1.2 million for its transportation contracts just for busing, Bean said.
Had they not used contracted services, the cost to the district would be more.
“A brand new bus costs about $60,000 to $100,000, and we would need about 35 buses, and then hire drivers and mechanics, and that’s just the start,” he said. “Figure in insurance and a place to house the buses and other costs, and it’s even more.”
Swauger said district drivers must pass the same clearances as other district staff, have at least 14 hours of classroom training and six hours of vehicle training, and must have a valid CDL license.