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Statewide struggle to find bus drivers not a problem here, transportation director says

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Even as the Clay Community Schools Board of Trustees considers a request to raise bus drivers' pay, The Associated Press has learned many Indiana school districts are struggling with increasingly difficult searches for school bus drivers qualified to safely drive students to and from school.

The Indianapolis Star reported Sunday that stringent regulations, low pay, split hours and stress combine to narrow the field of applicants for school bus drivers. It's an occupation plagued by high turnover and absenteeism.

"We never close the applicant pool," said Gene Moore, the transportation director for Indianapolis Public Schools, which has 183 routes. "It's a constant problem."

The turnover rate in IPS is at least 8 percent, and the daily absentee rate averages 9 percent to 15 percent, Moore said.

Hamilton Southeastern -- one of the fastest-growing in the state with more than 13,000 students -- has three open routes, according to Betty Clark, president of the Hamilton Southeastern Bus Drivers Association and a driver for more than two decades.

Big districts aren't the only ones with problems.

Earlier this month, the Clay Community Schools administration recommended bus drivers receive a flat $1.40 daily rate increase, as reported in Monday's edition of The Brazil Times. Drivers had originally requested a 2 percent to 3 percent raise.

Bus drivers at the Nov. 16 special school board meeting expressed disappointment that the school board was apparently not aware of the drivers' proposal for a new benefit package. The group gave a second plan to the school board for consideration.

The board is considering an increase of 25 cents per hour for driver trip pay for extra-curricular trips for educational or sports activities.

The average bus driver for Clay Community Schools is 52 to 53 years old, Transportation Director Frank Misner said Monday. Some drivers have been with the corporation for 40 years, several for well over 20 years. The average bus driver stays more than 15 years.

People drive school buses as a means to supplement their income or for the health insurance. Some begin driving after retiring from another job.

Clay Community Schools Corp. pays full-time bus drivers an average of $65 per day. The average route runs two to four hours per day.

Substitute drivers are paid $50 per day.

Recruitment is not an issue, Misner said.

"This is a small community and word gets around when we have an opening," he said. "We never have to advertise for drivers."

When a full-time bus driver leaves, Clay Community Schools hires from the ranks of substitute drivers on the basis of seniority, though some substitute drivers choose to not become full-time drivers.

But, each school corporation has its own set of issues, Misner said. Some school corporations invite contractors to bid on bus routes. Then, the contractor has to make money and that means there is less money to pay bus drivers the contractors hire.

"It's an ongoing challenge to find bus drivers," Misner said. "Some retire, some quit."

Eminence, Ind., has only 540 students and 10 bus routes, but only days before school started in August, Superintendent Norman Stockton still was working to fill an open slot.

The routes are covered as long as no one needs to take a day off. The Morgan County district has no substitute drivers. Most people who would consider subbing, he said, would prefer to take a regular job in a larger, nearby district.

To get a job, drivers must pass special driving tests, drug screenings and criminal background checks. Some districts require workers to pay for licenses or driver training.

Pete Baxter, director of school traffic safety and emergency planning for the Indiana Department of Education, said there is no statewide effort to check the driving records of Indiana's more than 16,600 school bus operators, either on buses or in their private vehicles.

"That is the responsibility of the local employer," he said.

The Bureau of Motor Vehicles issues licenses and informs all drivers, including school bus drivers, whether their driving privileges are at risk because of traffic violations.

Being a bus driver has few rewards: Drivers go to work early in the morning and head back to work in the afternoon for relatively low pay, often struggling to control children's outbursts.

IPS drivers can make upward of $100 a day because the district's routes are long, making for a 5 1/2 hour day. Other central Indiana districts pay $50 to $75 a day, the newspaper found.

Getting a license and getting hired is generally "a difficult, lengthy and detailed process," said South Henry Schools bus driver Ron Chew, a member of the Indiana State School Bus Committee in the state Department of Education.

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