Begging for bus drivers for Malheur County schools

Kypp Armstrong, a mechanic for the Vale School District, is often behind the wheel to help bus students because of a lack of drivers. Districts around the county struggle to find enough people to be bus drivers. (The Enterprise/MADISON SCOTT)

Julie Holt, the transportation supervisor for the Vale School District, sometimes has to let the office phone ring.

That’s because she’s behind the wheel of a school bus, filling in on a route and helping move about 450 students to Vale schools each day.

And in Ontario, the two mechanics in the bus barn at the Ontario School District sometimes aren’t around to make repairs.

They’re out serving as substitute bus drivers.

The shortage of bus drivers, a fact for school systems across the U.S., has become so acute in Nyssa that a big change is coming Feb. 21.

The Nyssa School District notified families that, with exceptions, there won’t be bus rides to and from school for students who live within a half mile of their building.

“It’s the last thing we wanted to do,” said Ryan Hawkins, district assistant superintendent.

The change means about 120 students will have to walk or find another ride, and that bothers Hawkins.

“We don’t really have a good walking town,” he said.

The district will staff a crosswalk on the main street through town and school officials have alerted local police to the change.

Those responsible for orchestrating the daily transit of students to school say finding people who want to drive a school bus remains a challenge.

With a tight job market on top of the impacts of the pandemic, applications have dropped off and some regular drivers have quit. School officials have had to get creative on how to move Johnny or Suzie from home to school.

In recent years, the Vale district had slimmed down its number of bus routes – from 12 to nine.

Holt once could rely on substitutes to step in when a driver took ill or couldn’t work for another reason.

Now, “we have no substitutes,” she said.

That means Holt and the district’s one mechanic step away from their normal jobs to shuttle children.

“It really impacts the time to actually work on vehicles,” Holt said. “Out of five hours, he might have three hours to work on things during the day.”

When Holt is driving, “there is nobody in the office to field calls or to call parents, or if there a report of a breakdown.”

One day not long ago, she had just five out of nine drivers available.

“We’re creative. We came up with a plan,” she said.

The district has steadily been recruiting for drivers, advertising, putting up banners and spreading the word. The job takes four to five hours a day, generally split in over the course of the day. Pay starts at $25 for the first hour and $14 for each hour after that.

“We have had a few people inquire,” Holt said. “Some did not call back.”

Chris Mohammed, a school bus driver for the Vale School District, was ready to head out on the road last week to drop off students. A shortage of bus drivers in many areas of the county is forcing some schools to adopt new methods to meet the challenge. (The Enterprise/MADISON SCOTT)

In Ontario, Darrell Wilson, school district transportation director, said the district hasn’t had to drop routes.

“So far, we’ve been able to pull it off,” he said.

“It is our goal to not impact students’ transportation at any cost,” said Taryn Smith, district public relations and communications officer.

Wilson said the district’s two mechanics and his office assistant are all trained to drive bus – and they do regularly now.

“There are days that all four of us are out on a bus,” he said.

He said substitutes help fill the schedule, but they aren’t always available. One, for instance, runs his own business.

And the need can pop up unexpectedly. One driver who bussed a team to LaGrande for competition had to stay over because of snow.

Wilson said he has two full-time openings now, and the need for drivers will increase when spring sports start and more teams are traveling. But he’s not thinking about that.

“I’m worried about next week right now,” he said.

Hawkins said the Nyssa district has tried several tactics to beef up its driver corps. Coaches, for instance, are driving team buses to competitions. The district considered contracting for such trips but private companies “are in the same boat,” Hawkins said.

Other school employees were invited to train for driving and extra pay and the district set up a training class over the holidays.

“Nothing has really panned out,” Hawkins said.

The most recent recruiting effort came up empty.

“We didn’t get anybody,” he said.

Hawkins and school officials hope parents will be patient with the new system – and call them if there is a particular circumstance that needs attention.

“A lot of parents do get that we have to make the change,” Hawkins said. “We’re just asking for their help.”

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