Conroe ISD is facing a shortage of bus drivers, in part due to enrollment growth exceeding projections, according to district officials.

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Chris McCord said the district transports around 40,000 children, which is 2,400 more than were transported in October 2021. Enrollment in the district was 69,515 for the 2022-23 school year, not all of whom require busing, according to CISD. The district runs 382 bus routes—up from 371 last year—36 of which do not have a permanent driver, McCord said.

“We have 36 buses that we have to make an effort on a daily basis to fill the driver for that route because we did not have a permanent driver, because we did not have enough applicants,” McCord said. “When that happens, if a route is open, an office staff [member] or part of the shop staff will drive the route.”

When employees fill in as a substitute driver, McCord said they are pulled away from their primary jobs in the office or providing maintenance.

Parent concerns

Martha Clayton, a parent at Buckalew Elementary School, said her neighborhood raised money and gifts for their bus driver to show their gratitude for the work the bus drivers do, but the driver shortage is affecting families because students often arrive late to school.

“They are working overtime to take our kids to and from school, and it’s not just my first-grader that’s late. ... Everyone is affected,” Clayton said.

In an effort to help fill in gaps that may be left by not having a permanent driver for every route, CISD created an app, called CISD Bus Hub, that gives parents real-time updates on different bus routes.

“We created this because we wanted to go the extra effort to notify parents if a bus is going to be late; maybe a road is closed or something of that nature,” McCord said. “When we pull office staff out to drive, it pulls our people away from being able to respond to parents and send out information in as expedited a manner as we would like.”

Commercial licenses needed

McCord said the problem extends nationwide due to a shortage of commercial driver’s license drivers.

“We have this tremendous competition in the country for CDL drivers, so there’s a smaller pool of applicants than we really experienced in recent years,” he said. “Within that smaller pool of available applicants, we are pulling people that care about kids [who] either have or are willing to go through the process to obtain their CDL and have the skills and the ability and the wherewithal to drive through ... one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States—certainly in Texas.”

To recruit and retain drivers that check all those boxes, the board of trustees elevated pay from $18 an hour in 2021-22 to $19 an hour in 2022-23. The board also approved a 2022-23 retention bonus of $500 for the fall as well as a $1,000 retention bonus for the spring for drivers who join by Dec. 14.

Drivers can earn $100 a month as additional attendance incentive pay as well as incentives for picking up additional runs. CISD will also pay for drivers’ CDL training and guarantee at least seven hours daily, McCord said.

He said the goal is to have full routes of drivers who have a passion for children and driving and who want to come to work. “What makes the bus great is when we have a driver who is assigned to that route ... because that driver, they know the terrain, the parents, the traffic flow,” McCord said. “We work to have a driver, and then we do everything we can to incentivize and create a culture where good attendance is there. When that happens, everybody wins—the children, the transportation system, the parents.”