Despite hiring 40 new bus drivers since the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, the Douglas County School District is still facing a shortage.
DCSD, which said it ideally needs 300 drivers to meet its needs, is still 30 short.
“We are still short on drivers, but this isn’t unique to Douglas County,” said Donna Grattino, the district’s director of transportation. “You see this across the Front Range and Colorado.”
According to Grattino, 15 drivers retired before the beginning of this school year, compounding a shortage that carried over from the previous year.
The improving economy and changes to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s health requirements have made it more difficult to recruit new drivers in recent years, she said.
Previous experience is not needed, but drivers must be able to obtain an commercial driver’s license.
In addition to competing with other school districts for drivers, DCSD also must contend with RTD, who offers a $2,000 sign-on bonus for new hires, and charter bus companies.
In an attempt to attract more drivers, the district approved a 5 percent increase in base pay during the 2015-16 school year, moving starting compensation to $15.90 from $15.15 per hour.
Cherry Creek School District offers starting pay of $15.60 per hour, Jefferson County School District offers $16.10 per hour and Littleton Public Schools offers $16.86 per hour.
In 2014, Douglas County’s base pay was $14.17, but the union negotiated it up to $15.15.
“Last year, we tried to address the problem by raising our wage for drivers,” Douglas County Board of Education President Meghann Silverthorn said. “This briefly put us at the top of the pay range for the metro area. Then, other districts rushed to catch up, and now we are no longer at the top. However, when we are competing with other entities such as RTD and for-hire and charter bus companies, we are definitely seeing some issues.”
The school district has three bus terminals — one in Highlands Ranch, one in Parker and one in Castle Rock. Each terminal is responsible for about 150 routes. The district as a whole covers about 900 square miles.
The district averages 22 field trips per day, based on a six-day workweek (this includes numerous Saturday events).
Last year, transportation was provided for nearly 300,000 students on 7,000 field trips, athletic events and activities.
“I am aware of the impact that this has had on parents and students,” said board Vice President Judith Reynolds. “One of my own children has had a change to their bus route in order to alleviate overcrowding on another bus.”
The district also has instituted a referral program to reward district employees for helping to bring in new drivers. Anyone who refers a driver to the transportation department — and that referral is still with the district after 60 days — will receive $200. If the driver is with the district after a year, the person who made the referral will get an additional $200.
The shortage has affected both daily routes and the availability of buses for field trips and extracurricular activities, Reynolds said.
In October, the board of education approved the use of charter buses to be contracted for some extracurricular activities.
“Obviously, the desired state is to use our own bus drivers as the disadvantage of contracting out means increased cost passed on to parents,” board member David Ray said. “However, this can provide some temporary relief from the impact the shortage may have on students and school events.”
Silverthorn said she would like to see more incentives for drivers.
“My grandfather was a school bus driver during his early retirement years in a small district in Prowers County, and I briefly had the opportunity to ride with him when I was in first grade,” Silverthorn said. “Even then, I saw his desire to serve running up against requirements from the district and ever-shorter funding pools. I would like to find a way to increase incentives for recruitment and retention, something the district already has a good start on doing with cash bonuses paid to people who recruit new drivers who stay with DCSD.”
The district’s efforts to attract new drivers with referral bonuses and increased pay have been successful, Grattino said. And the district is continuing outreach efforts at local community events.
She also noted the district is meeting all requirements for daily routes to and from school and has not missed any routes this year.
“Compared to last year, we are doing much better,” Grattino said. “All of our training classes have been full. We’re really seeing the efforts we have put forward start to pay off this year.”