San Mateo County Times - November 10th, 1999

Schools Search for bus drivers

Shortage a national and local problem

By Glenn May


HALF MOON BAY -- Well Into the school year, the Cabrillo Unified School District had only Eight of the 10 bus drivers it needed. "Six weeks ago, I was borrowing people from all over, I mean there were just no drivers." said Jim Tjogas, director of transportation for the Cabrillo District In Half Moon Bay.

Then the school board raised the average salary for drivers at Cabrillo from about $l4 per hour to $23 an hour. All vacancies were quickly filled.

Nationwide. a shortage of school bus drivers. caused by the roaring economy and a rise In the school-age population. is forcing students to wait up to an hour for a ride. delaying and canceling field trips and athletic events. and forcing mechanics, transportation supervisors and even some teachers to get behind the wheel.

"It's a national crisis" Tjongas said.

When Cabrillo was In the midst of its driver shortage, some students were getting home as much as two hours late, he added.

Richard Fischer, a school bus consultant, put the national bus driver shortfall at 20 percent. In recent surveys by School Bus Fleet a trade magazine published In Torrance, more than 70 percent of U.S. school districts said they were struggling to fill drivers seats, with officials in 44 states citing the shortage as a problem, and 17 of them calling it severe.

And San Mateo County doesn't seem to be an exception.

William Jackson, transportation supervisor for the Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City, added he needs 30 drivers and is now two or three short

"That is dire" he said. Being just a few drivers short and then having one or two call In sick could mean problems for dozens of students, Jackson said.

The biggest problem he sees in filling vacancies is the licensing requirements. Aside from a rigorous skills testing regimen prospective drivers take there are also in-depth background checks required.

Jackson said he sometimes has to send a set of fingerprints to the FBI to check for past felony convictions, and it can take two months to get results.

While Jackson said the policy is good because everyone wants to be sure "what kind of people you're sending out to pick up the kids," it can result in putting an applicant through 40 or more hours of expensive training only to have him disqualified.

Sequoia, like San Mateo Union, offers hourly wages in the $15-$18 range.

That, said Palmer, can make recruitment for San Mateo County districts easier than it is for others around the state.

"Our district tends to be a little different because we pay rather well." he said.

But raising pay can also cause problems -- for other districts.

Of the five new drivers hired at Cabrillo, Tjogas said, at least two were already working for other districts. Raising pay to cover one shortage, he admits, can create troubles for another district.

"That's what we're doing," he said "We're shifting the problem."

But pay is only one part of the equation.

Industry experts, who attribute the shortage mainly to record low unemployment levels, are worried that the pool of potential drivers has largely disappeared.

"It's a huge problem that no one seems to have an answer for right now, said Michael Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

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