By Per Peterson
The importance of getting your kids to school in the morning and to their home in the afternoon is not lost on school officials. It’s something they all take seriously, which is why they continue to work on becoming more efficient. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.
A shortage in drivers, a school district that covers nearly 350 square miles, unpredictable weather and, at least for the time being, a heavy dose of road construction, are all obstacles the school district is facing.
The district is seemingly making changes on the fly — either out of necessity or for efficiency and cost savings.
Last month, the District 2904 School Board unanimously voted to approve the decrease of one bus route in the district, from 11 to 10. The move, the district said, will result in a savings of $4,683.54 per month for nine months ($42,156 per year). There are technically nine routes within the city of Tracy.
TAHS Supt. Chad Anderson said at the September board meeting that the district runs 11 routes in the morning and 10 in the afternoon, that no student gets on the bus before 6:45 a.m. and that only a few routes increased slightly.
The move was experimented with during the last school year. On Jan. 1 2017, bus supervisor Shauna Davis, an employee of 4.0 School Services, dropped Route 9 in the afternoon because of a driver shortage and for economic reasons. This summer, she decided it would be possible to drop that route altogether and combine it with the other routes without changing times or for any additional costs to the school. Davis said dropping the route didn’t cause any problems.
“It has worked out well,” she said. “We kept it in the morning — you can get a morning driver, but an afternoon driver — the 2:45 to 4:30, that route driver is hard to come by. It was going to be easy enough to drop that route completely. I talked it over with Dr. Anderson, and he was in agreement that we can do that, as was 4.0.”
The school district spans a 347-square mile radius, making it one of the largest in southwest Minnesota.
It’s not uncommon these days to see a school bus parked alongside of a highway — an advertising technique that speaks to the severity of the lack of school bus drivers in Minnesota.
“The driver shortage is everywhere,” Davis said.
“Everybody I’ve talked to is going through the same thing,” Anderson said. “It’s challenging to find people.”
Why? For one, the hours.
“Anytime you have a job where you’ve got to come in the morning for a couple hours, then you have the entire day to do something else, then come back for a couple hours in the evening, it’s really … it would be different if you could work four hours in a row,” Anderson said. “It kind of chops up your day.”
Another reason it’s become more difficult to find drivers, Davis said, is new licensing requirements. She said drivers need a B Class license, must pass a DOT physical and have a background check. Those are nothing new, but now drivers need to pass four tests, where before a prospective driver needed only to take a school bus/passenger bus Class B test. There is also an air brake test.
“There’s more background checks, which is good,” Davis said. “But there’s a lot to go through.”
“They continue to make things a little bit more challenging,” said Anderson.
A new hurdle for drivers this year is all the road construction and other street issues about town.
“It’s been a challenge,” Davis said.
For the safety of the children, Davis said it was her goal to get all the stops off of Center Street, “and we ended up having to put a couple back on there, mainly because the bus couldn’t get in some areas. We’ve been getting by by altering our routes, trying to keep the pick-ups in the same spot.”
Davis said Duininck Construction, the company doing the road work in town, has been good to work with so far.
“They’re starting to shut the machinery down more when we’re pulling in with busses,” Davis said. “I’m probably down there once a week talking with them.”
With Center Street currently closed, Bus 8 from Balaton goes to 4th Street because it’s easier to get back over to Elm Street for the pick-up. Kids from East Emory walk to Elm and East First.
“You deal with it,” Davis said. “We’ll deal with it for how many more years until they get the sewer and water where they want it.”