School bus drivers feel pinch amid shortage

Photos by Traci Westcott/The Herald
Northeast Dubois County School Corporation bus driver Tony Quinn checks in on students before departing the elementary school in Dubois on Tuesday. Quinn greets each of the students by name as they board the bus.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Tony Quinn remembers when bidding for school bus routes was a competitive venture. Now, not so much.

Quinn has been driving a school bus for the Northeast Dubois County School Corporation for about 40 years as a contracted driver, which means he owns and maintains his own bus and contracts with the school to cover routes.

Every few years, the contracts end, and the school corporation solicits bids from its contracted drivers. In the past, Quinn recalled, you had to be really careful to make sure you had the most competitive bid. If you didn’t, there would assuredly be someone offering the school a better deal. Now, the same people bid every time, and those people are barely enough to cover the corporation’s routes.

“It’s such a big responsibility,” Quinn said. “Nobody wants to do it.”

Quinn’s experience isn’t unique. Across the county and across the state, schools are seeing a shortage of bus drivers. It’s been that way for the last several years.

Chris Englert has driven a school bus for the Southeast Dubois County School Corporation for 15 years. When she first started, she recalled, it felt like she could never miss a day of work because there was no one to sub for her. It’s gotten a little bit better in recent years, Englert said, but if multiple bus drivers had to be absent at the same time, there would be an issue.

Englert drives a bus owned by Kathy Bolte, who contracts with Southeast Dubois.

Northeast Dubois bus driver Tony Quinn greets students boarding the bus outside the elementary school in Dubois on Tuesday.

Joanie Wening owns several buses and contracts for seven routes with Greater Jasper Consolidated Schools. Most of her subs are essentially full-time drivers, she said.

“It makes it hard when somebody has to take off,” she added.

In fact, most bus drivers rarely take sick days and plan their vacations well in advance so they have time to find subs, Englert said.

Englert, Quinn and Wening attribute the shortage to the long, arduous process required to get the bus driver’s license — a Class B Commercial Driver’s License. The process involves several written tests, a driving test, regular physical exams and a three-day training with the Indiana Department of Education. It’s a long process that can be expensive, and other types of CDL licenses — such as a semi-truck driver’s Class A license — don’t transfer over. Truck drivers have to go through the process again to get the Class B, Wening said.

“I’ve had truck drivers that said no,” Wening said. “They’re not going to retake the whole test.”

Another issue the three see is scheduling conflicts. Wening remembers when employers would let their employees take a couple hours a day off to drive a bus. That’s no longer the case, she said, and while many people can fit the morning route into their schedule, they can’t leave work at 2:30 p.m. to go drive a school bus.

“One of these days there’s going to be a bus that’s not out there [because there’s no driver],” Wening said.

In Indiana, schools are not legally required to offer bus service, although there is a fund for the service built into school budgeting.

Although it can be a challenging job, Englert encourages people to put the time in to get their license and drive a bus if it fits in their schedule. She took it on when her children entered school, and it was an ideal part-time job. Her work schedule followed her children’s school schedule, and she got to know their peers. Fifteen years later, the kids are still a highlight.

“I have had such great kids,” she said. “I’ve seen some of my kids grow up and have kids of their own.”




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