Amid bus driver shortage, local district considers changing school hours

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A Portland school district experiencing a bus driver shortage is considering a controversial fix.

David Douglas School District said it is considering changing school hours next year primarily because of the shortage, as well as several other reasons.

“Definitely the last two years, it has been a big issue,” Cindy Sim, the district's transportation manager, said. “It seems to be getting worse.”

Staggered start times at the district’s various schools would allow fewer bus drivers to cover more routes.

Sim and other district officials believe the bus driver shortage could be related to a strong economy, and said that translates to fewer workers willing to settle for a part-time job with no work available during the summer.

“People who need a full income, it makes it tough for them,” Sim said.

Hoping to attract more candidates, the David Douglas School District recently boosted starting pay by nine percent. The district is also offering signing bonuses for employees who stay.

Sim said drivers now start at hourly wages between $17.21 and $21.85, which she believes is the highest starting pay in Oregon.

Though the district says changing school start times is still in an early exploratory phase, Aaron Barrow, a parent of a student in the district, said he is fiercely opposed to it.

“It’s a pretty radical change to move the start times from school from 9 a.m. to 7:30 in the morning,” Barrow said, adding that he saw a district proposal offering four possible start times that varied between 7:30 a.m. and 7:45 a.m.

FOX 12 requested more information about the proposal from the district but did not hear back.

“I think this is going to affect my kids and I think it’s going to affect other kids and I think it’s going to affect the academic health of all of our kids, and mental health,” Barrow said.

Barrow said the district already recently extended his children’s bus ride length from 10 to 25 minutes.

School districts in other cities say the shortage extends far beyond David Douglas. Districts in Beaverton, Salem and Vancouver say they desperately need more drivers.

Evergreen Public Schools, the district that serves Vancouver, said they have about 46 percent fewer substitute bus drivers than what they need.

“On days we have more than 10 percent of drivers call in sick, we do not have enough subs,” Gail Spolar, a spokeswoman for the district, said in an email to FOX 12.

Some districts are also increasing wages and spending more time and money on recruitment.

Beaverton Public Schools said its transportation team has increased interview frequency to twice a week, expanded online advertisements and is targeting colleges and universities for recruitment. Transportation Administrator Craig Beaver said the district is primarily losing drivers to retirement.

In a pinch, Beaverton Public Schools, David Douglas, Evergreen Public Schools, and even large national school bus contractors said they will send in other dedicated staff to sub a route.

“I’ve driven, my dispatchers have driven, my mechanics have driven, just about all of us that have full-time jobs, other than being bus drivers ... we all maintain our CDL and our school bus driver certificate, and we all have had to go out and drive this year,” Sim said.

Two of the largest school bus contractors, First Student and Student Transportation Inc., said they are also having trouble filling positions, locally and across the nation.

Student Transportation Inc. has about 13,000 drivers. The company is used to transport students from the Lake Oswego School District, Tigard-Tualatin School District and other districts in the metro area.

“In the area, it has been challenging to fill positions,” Don Kissell, senior vice president of the company’s western region, said. “It’s a nationwide issue.”

Kissell said it’s been a problem now for about a year to a year-and-a-half.

“We are evaluating wages increases,” Kissell added.

David Douglas plans to hold a community meeting to discuss the possible changes to the school start times May 8. It’s unclear where the meeting will be held or at what time. The meeting does not appear to be listed on the district’s events page on its website.

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