Frisco ISD has tried a number of tactics to recruit bus drivers and has now reached a critical point, said Doug Zambiasi, FISD deputy superintendent for support services.
The district has hosted job fairs, advertised open positions and attempted other recruiting efforts, but FISD is still short 22 drivers as of Oct. 31.
In hopes to retain its current bus drivers and recruit new ones, the FISD board of trustees approved a pay increase for bus drivers from $15.63 to $16.63 per hour.
Zambiasi said the pay increase is more in line with what surrounding school districts are paying. Prosper ISD, for example, pays its drivers more than $16 an hour.
The pay increase went into effect Nov. 1.
Not just one problem
Zambiasi said FISD started to experience a bus driver shortage at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year. The biggest contributor to the shortage is the need for more drivers in a growing school district, he said.
“We’ve always in the past had some peaks and valleys with [hiring bus drivers],” Zambiasi said. “Up until 2016 we were always able for a period of time to get back to even where we could operate. And beginning in the fall of 2016 we became short on bus drivers, and we never really did get back to where we needed to be to operate effectively.”
Between Aug. 11 and Oct. 1, the district paid $84,557 in overtime for bus drivers, Zambiasi said.
But the shortage is affecting more than just bus drivers, he said. Support services staff, students and school administration are feeling the effects of the staffing issue.
Support services staff has been pitching in to help drive students to and from school, Zambiasi said. Transporting students in the morning or the afternoon takes up about five hours of a staffer’s work day.
“That means that there’s five hours that they’re not doing their real job,” Zambiasi said. “They have been warriors in terms of being able to help us with the driving piece as well as somehow get their own jobs done. With this driver shortage, the thing that scares me is I don’t know how long I can keep asking them to do that.”
With the help of support staff, students have mainly been able to get from home to school, Zambiasi said. The afternoons are more of a struggle because fewer parents can pick up their children in the early afternoon.
Because of this, drivers may have to make multiple trips to and from the school to get the students home. With some students having to wait longer after school to get home, some school principals are working later until each student gets picked up by the bus.
“It’s one of those things where one problem isn’t just one problem; it’s two or three different things combined,” Zambiasi said.
Zambiasi said recruiting bus drivers is a struggle, and not just because of wages.
“Not only are you driving in monstrous traffic, but then you put 50 kids behind you while you’re driving in monstrous traffic,” he said. “That’s not a job that a lot of people say, ‘Man, I’d really love to do that.’ … It’s kind of a thankless job.”
Zambiasi said he hopes the wage increase will help make the job more attractive to potential applicants, especially those who want to live and work in Frisco. Of FISD’s 165 bus drivers, 45 percent live in Frisco, and 55 percent live outside Frisco.
Other districts are also experiencing bus driver shortages, which means that FISD is competing with those districts for drivers, Zambiasi said.
He said part of the problem statewide is the time it takes for drivers to apply for a commercial drivers license, or CDL, which is required to drive a school bus.
Last year the Texas Department of Public Safety had to reduce the number of CDL skills test sites to comply with new federal regulations for CDL testing. The number of test sites in the state was reduced to 25 sites. This year DPS has 29 test sites.
DPS Press Secretary Tom Vinger said it is important for drivers to schedule the CDL skills test as soon as they receive their commercial learners permit to avoid any delays in taking the test. Vinger said drivers must wait for 14 days under federal mandate before taking the CDL skills test as well as complete any training required by a school district.
“We understand the urgency in getting school bus drivers tested during this time of the year, and we will notify school districts when there are testing vacancies available for customers, especially when we have awareness of a particular issue,” Vinger said.
To help provide more test sites, DPS has given government entities, local fire departments and independent school districts the option of requesting CDL skills testing at their facilities if they are located outside the 50-mile radius of one of the 29 testing sites. To be considered for a testing site the site must accommodate CDL testing requirements in accordance with the new federal regulations.
Zambiasi said the district is looking to become a third-party testing site so drivers could be tested at a district level. He said he believes this will help recruit new drivers and help speed up the process of applicants getting their CDL and working as an FISD bus driver.
“I’m an optimist, and I think there’s a light at the end of tunnel and we’re going to turn this thing around,” he said during the Oct. 16 board of trustees meeting. “But after a year and a half I’m convinced that we need to do something really serious to try to get the drivers to come to Frisco.”
Nicole Luna contributed to this story