Bus Driver Shortage Causing Strain on Schools in Oklahoma

In Oklahoma, the shortage of bus drivers in public schools is becoming a significant challenge, leading to various issues for school districts of all sizes.

To address the shortage, districts are implementing creative solutions. Coweta Public Schools, for example, has had to adjust by delaying student pickups and drop-offs until other routes are completed. Meanwhile, both Covington-Douglas Public Schools and Clinton Public Schools offer competitive pay of $35 an hour for drivers, yet they have struggled to fill positions since the start of the school year.

Guthrie Public Schools is resorting to paying overtime to drivers for after-school events, while Beggs Public Schools has had to consolidate routes, resulting in some students enduring journeys exceeding two hours.

An analysis by StateImpact reveals that over 40% of Oklahoma’s public school districts have open driver positions among the 400-plus schools surveyed. Moreover, a quarter of the surveyed superintendents indicated that they or other administrators are driving buses due to the shortage.

Jason Goostree, the superintendent of Sentinel Public Schools, is among those administrators driving buses, serving a small rural district located about 120 miles from Oklahoma City. Goostree acknowledges the responsibility that comes with ensuring the smooth operation of the district, leading him to personally take on bus driving duties.

Sentinel Public Schools Superintendent Jason Goostree drives an afternoon route. Due to absences caused by state testing, his route that day was a short one. (Beth Wallis/StateImpact Oklahoma)

Recognizing the need for additional field trip drivers, Goostree is actively seeking volunteers within the district since recruiting externally is challenging due to its remote location. While some teachers possess bus driving licenses, he believes it’s unfair to pull them away from their classrooms for such duties.

“If we have a field trip… you can’t start yanking people out of their jobs all the time,” Goostree stated. “So I got one person, for sure, out of that meeting that said she’s going to do it, and I’m working on a second. My goal was three, but if I can get two more people by the beginning of next year, that will help quite a bit.”

Despite rural schools facing recruitment challenges, larger districts like Stillwater Public Schools are also grappling with driver shortages, prompting the cancellation of out-of-town field trips due to insufficient driver availability.

Bo Gamble, Assistant Superintendent of Operations at Stillwater, emphasized the need to balance transportation requirements with staffing limitations, indicating that the district remains short-staffed with vacant driver positions.

“Trying to balance getting students where they need to be for curricular needs and wants, there’s just a trade-off that you have to make,” Gamble explained.

Field trips scheduled during the school day pose additional logistical challenges if buses cannot return in time between morning and afternoon routes. Gamble attributed the staffing difficulties in part to workforce shortages exacerbated by COVID-19 disruptions.

“In my opinion, specifically in Oklahoma … we’ve lost a lot of our workforce to [cannabis] grow farms. There’s a large capacity for that workforce. And I think everybody’s being impacted by [a workforce shortage],” Gamble highlighted.

When drivers aren’t there, teachers step in

Activity sponsors such as band directors and coaches have also assumed driving responsibilities in the absence of sufficient bus drivers. Various schools have different policies regarding compensating these teachers for additional driving tasks, with some districts paying an hourly rate.

While most schools mandate or strongly encourage activity sponsors to obtain bus driving licenses, the added driving hours raise safety concerns for coaches and directors.

For instance, Hunter Hanna, a band director at Valliant Public Schools, recounted the challenges of juggling teaching duties with driving students to lengthy events, highlighting the fatigue and safety risks involved.

“Highway hypnosis is one of the things they talk about in bus driver training because, I mean, seeing all these dark roads and just nothing on them… it was pretty bad,” Hanna shared.

Recognizing the strain of coordinating transportation without adequate drivers, Hanna ultimately opted to acquire his bus driving license to streamline logistics for his band students.

While some districts do not mandate activity sponsors to hold bus driving licenses, others like Newcastle Public Schools expect them to do so. Whitney Callen, a band director at Newcastle, reluctantly agreed to obtain her license, stipulating her limits on driving during extended hours.

“And they were like, ‘Oh, for sure. We definitely always get drivers for our directors if it’s a long weekend,’” Callen recalled.

Despite facing unforeseen obstacles in getting her license, Callen witnessed the persistence of her colleague who continued driving on demanding days where additional support was promised but not provided by the district.

“The school district did not follow through on that. And so when I saw that, I was like, yeah, I’m not getting my CDL because this is not a safe environment for students or me,” Callen expressed.

Stillwater Public Schools bus driver Marvin Gardner has been driving for the district for 12 years. (Beth Wallis/StateImpact Oklahoma)

As the shortage of drivers persists, schools are relying on teachers and administrators to fill in the gaps, along with implementing measures such as increased pay, trip cancellations, route adjustments, and staggered schedules.

According to Bo Gamble of Stillwater Public Schools, efforts are ongoing to boost staffing levels before the new school year commences. The district actively recruits, hosts hiring events, and offers incentives to attract and retain employees.

“If you know anybody, we’re still hiring. We need drivers,” Gamble emphasized. “I may be a little bit biased, but I think Stillwater Public Schools is a great place to work — Stillwater’s a great place to be.”

This article was originally published by StateImpact Oklahoma. StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond.

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