EDMONDS — Even in hard times, many school districts go looking for bus drivers.
It can become that much harder when the economy is humming.
Consider some numbers from the Edmonds School District, which transports 7,000 students a day along 140 routes, which typically include a collection of runs for high school, middle school and elementary school students.
At last count, the district had 156 regular and substitute drivers. A dozen are out on long-term leave. That leaves 144 drivers for 140 routes with little wiggle room if anyone calls in sick or has family emergencies.
That often means drivers must combine routes to pick up the slack and sometimes run late.
“Drivers are under a lot of pressure,” said Ben Mount, the district’s transportation director. “As we add more to their routes, it’s harder to do what we have scheduled.”
Late arrivals can have ripple effects, both in terms of the instructional day and for families.
Imagine, Mount asks, that a special education route is running late for an autistic child who thrives on routine. A different bus with a different bus driver arrives 20 minutes late, increasing the anxiety of the child and for the parent who could be running late for work. The break in routine could throw off the child’s behavior and cause disruptions by the time that student finally gets into the classroom.
“We have drivers doing their absolute best to meet their schedules,” Mount said. “We have schedules that are pretty much impossible at this point.”
The bottom line is Edmonds could use 20 more drivers for a job Mount describes as challenging as it is rewarding.
What’s happening in the Edmonds district is commonplace across the county.
Large signs seeking more drivers are posted prominently at schools in Marysville and other districts.
“This shortage appears to be getting more impactful with each school year,” said Kristin Foley, a Snohomish School District spokeswoman.
“We are just surviving covering daily routes and a few field trips in house every day,” said Lisa Youngblood Hall, a spokeswoman for the Northshore School District. “Some field trips are outsourced to charter companies.”
Monroe is doing better than in the past in terms of hiring, training and retention after getting a new trainer. The district has seen an improvement in the rate of applicants completing the training and beginning work as substitutes.”With that said, we are still continuously looking for qualified applicants,” said Tamara Krache, a district spokeswoman.
In the Mukilteo School District, finding enough bus drivers is a constant challenge.
“We have been fortunate in being able to maintain a good substitute pool, but we now do training almost constantly and on demand when we have qualified candidates rather than waiting to conduct training classes two or three times a year, as we used to do in the past,” district spokesman Andy Muntz said.
Edmonds, too, offers more frequent training to get drivers on the road sooner than before.
Federal law also has changed over the years, adding the need for more school bus drivers. A prong of the McKinney Vento Act provides homeless students with transportation to school even if they move outside the school district. The goal is to counteract the educational disruption caused by mobility.
The result is more students are being driven longer distances to get to school. About one in every 25 students attending Washington public schools is homeless or is living in a hotel, in a car, or with friends, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In 2016-17, a total of 40,934 Washington students were counted as homeless.
“We have four drivers and buses that are dedicated strictly to transporting McKinney Vento students to schools out of district or transporting them from out-of-district schools to our district,” said Gary Sabol, a spokesman for the Arlington School District.
In the Edmonds district, the out-of-district routes take drivers as far away as Burien, Highline and Granite Falls. The numbers of long-distance commuters has increased by about 20 percent over the past year to around 600.
Jenny Firoved is in her 11th year of driving school buses in the Edmonds district. For one year, her middle school son and his friends were part of her route. She likes the job, the pay, the benefits, the time off for the holidays and summer vacation, the camaraderie among drivers and especially working with young people.
“When you are on my bus, you are my kids,” she said. “If you do something I will let you know, but if you do something awesome everyone is going to know.”
She sees the strain of finding enough drivers.
“We have a lot of people retiring,” she said. “There are a lot of people leaving and not as many people coming in.”
Cathy Ward has been driving buses in the Edmonds district for more than 40 years. Her mom drove a bus before her. Ward wakes up at 4:45 a.m., heads out to the transportation department for a cup of coffee and chat with co-workers she considers family and then begins assignments driving children with special needs ages 3 to 21 to and from therapy sessions.
“We have so many more students and so many more places to go,” she said.
Tereda Muka is one of the newest hires. He signed on in January.
Driving a bus full of children is an enormous responsibility, he said. He’s thankful for the extensive training he received before going solo.
Like a lot of newly hired drivers, Muka had worked other jobs before finding himself behind the wheel of a school bus.
School districts across the county report a long list of previous professions among their bus drivers: banker, businessman, Boeing worker, engineer, police officer, deputy prosecutor, retail clerk and teacher, to name a few.
Mount, the transportation director, is looking for more Mukas to help the district keep up with attrition.
All the while, the demands keep increasing.
“As needs have grown through the year, we have not been able to add routes because we don’t have anyone to put on them,” he said.