Conroe ISD is among the districts affected by the national school bus driver shortage, including routes in The Woodlands.

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

The $1.8 billion bond includes three different propositions approved by voters. The $22 million for transportation was funded through Proposition A, which will provide for new buses and renovations to the East County Transportation Center.

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%.

Juan Melendez, associate director of transportation for Conroe ISD, 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 extra 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. 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 are 19 open routes in the district. Melendez said the number of open routes often fluctuates between each of the four transportation centers.

The Woodlands Center—which services 19 schools in both The Woodlands and College Park high school feeder zones—had three open routes as of Oct. 27. The Oak Ridge Transportation Center, which services 16 schools in the Oak Ridge and Grand Oaks feeder zones, also had three open routes.For some parents in The Woodlands, the issues caused by driver shortages appear to be improving.

Martha Clayton, a mother of two Buckalew Elementary students in The Woodlands feeder zone, said she has heard minimal complaints this year from parents about transportation issues. Last year, she said she believes the district struggled with late drop-offs and pick-ups due to the shortage.

“Last year, my kids were late to school. Buses were behind. It was a lot more of a common issue,” she said. “This year, they have only been behind a couple of times. To me, it sounds like [the shortage] has gotten better, and my children have been happy with their bus driver.”

The context

CISD voters approved $1.8 billion in projects from a nearly $2 billion bond referendum Nov. 7 that included $22 million for transportation needs such as new buses and transportation center expansion.

In 2019, voters approved a $683 million bond package that set aside $20 million dedicated to transportation.

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

During a presentation to Shenandoah City Council 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.

“Our standard bonds are 25 years in length, but when we finance anything that does not have a 25-year life expectancy, we pay off that item within the life expectancy of that item,” he said.

The district needs to replace a third of its fleet that is past the industry standards for life expectancy, Melendez said.

In addition to new buses, the East County Transportation Center expansion will provide 100 more parking spaces, he said.

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.

Melendez also said he is anticipating the opening of the East County Transportation Center in spring 2024. The center will serve as a permanent building for transportation employees in the district who have been operating out of portable buildings.

Bus driver hiring event
  • Nov. 28
  • 9:30-10:30 a.m.
  • Oak Ridge Transportation Center, 27110 Geffert Wright Drive, Spring