Conroe ISD is among the districts affected by the national school bus driver shortage.

Juan Melendez, director of transportation for CISD, said the district has made some progress in the past year by offering incentives, but an additional $22 million is slated to be infused into the transportation program from the Nov. 7 bond.

The $1.99 billion bond included four different propositions. The $22 million for transportation is grouped in with Proposition A, which voters approved. It will fund new buses and renovations to the East County Transportation Center renovations, which serves the Caney Creek feeder zone.

The big picture

In 2021, the transportation company HopSkipDrive, which operates in 13 states including Texas, started keeping tabs on the school bus driver shortage through a national survey. This year, the survey found that 92% of school districts and transportation companies that responded reported a lack of drivers is affecting their operations. Two years ago, that number was 78%.

Melendez said the district is among those still facing staffing issues. However, he said the transportation department has filled 17 vacancies since last year when the district was struggling with 36 open routes.

An open route is one that does not have an assigned driver.

“If we don’t have an assigned driver, somebody has to drive that route,” Melendez said. “If we don’t have enough standby drivers, then ... anyone who has a [commercial drivers license] has to take on that job, on top of the job they already have.”

The action taken

Melendez, who was promoted to director of transportation in August, said the district has made several adjustments in the 2023-24 academic year to help address the bus driver shortage, including:
  • Giving incentives to drivers to pick up routes
  • Approving two retention stipends for transportation employees
  • Showing more appreciation through celebrations, events and lunches
  • Creating a precommercial learners program for training
The pre-CLP program helps community members interested in becoming a bus driver obtain their commercial learner’s permit while training at CISD. Melendez said as of Oct. 20, there are 12 people in the program.

In terms of pay, Melendez said the district is looking to stay as competitive as possible. Bus drivers at CISD start at $19 an hour.

In Montgomery ISD, the bus driver starting pay is $20.20 per hour. According to the Economic Research Institute, a company that collects salary market data for private and public organizations, the average hourly wage for bus drivers in the Greater Houston area is $18 an hour.

Despite the efforts, Latoya Lloyd, a CISD bus driver for seven years, said she and the remaining drivers are still feeling the effects of the shortage.

“It’s very stressful,” she said. “I don’t think the shortage is getting better, but it’s the way the drivers are helping and coming together that is making a difference. ... We have everybody out here trying to cover these runs and get kids to school in a safe manner.”
Zooming in

As of October, there were 19 open routes in the district. Melendez said the number of open routes often fluctuates between each of the four transportation centers with 10 open routes at the East County Transportation Center as of Oct. 27.

The East County Center covers the Caney Creek feeder zone, which includes the high school, junior high and intermediate campuses and four elementary schools. The Conroe Center—which services 19 schools—had three open routes.

At the same time, Montgomery and Willis ISDs are also dealing with driver shortages. As of Oct. 26, MISD has five open bus driver positions, and individuals including the district’s transportation director are driving buses to ensure all needed routes are covered, MISD leaders said.

In WISD, Director of Transportation Shannon Calltharp said there were six open routes as of Nov. 1, and the department is using mechanics and office staff to help fill those routes.

However, Megan Clermont, a mom of a Stewart Creek Elementary student, said she hasn’t experienced lateness with MISD buses this year.

“We’ve dealt with being late leaving the school, but that isn’t common, and I totally understand things happen sometimes beyond the driver’s control,” she said.

The context

CISD voters passed a $1.8 billion bond Nov. 7 that included $22 million designated for transportation needs. In 2019, voters approved a $683 million bond package that set aside $20 million for transportation.

Melendez said the average cost of a new bus in 2023 is approximately $149,000.

During a presentation to Shenandoah City Council on Oct. 25, CISD Superintendent Curtis Null said buses are a continuing need, and they tend to be paid off within 10 years instead of the usual 30 years for bond projects.

Melendez said the district also needs to replace a third of its fleet that has passed the industry standards for life expectancy.

“That [bond] money will help us to provide buses for our ever expanding number of students and routes,” Melendez said.

MISD has made similar investments in its transportation department, including $6.3 million for new buses as part of the district’s $326.9 million bond voters approved in May 2022. MISD leaders said Oct. 17 the design for renovations to the district’s transportation center—a $7 million project also funded by the bond—is nearly complete, and the project is expected to go out for bid after Jan. 1.

What's next

Looking forward, Melendez said his goals for the future of the transportation department are to fill all route vacancies with good drivers, stay up-to-date with technological advances and continue to update infrastructure.
  • Conroe ISD bus driver hiring event
  • Nov. 28
  • 9:30-10:30 a.m.
  • Oak Ridge Transportation Center, 27110 Geffert Wright Drive, Spring
  • Montgomery ISD auxiliary staff job fair
  • Nov. 29
  • 3-6 p.m.
  • MISD Education Support Center, 20774 Eva St., Montgomery
  • Apply for WISD driver positions: