School districts and private bus companies are responding to the shortage with ambitious recruiting initiatives, offering $1,000 signing bonuses, higher wages, longer hours, child care and other benefits, plus cash prizes for referrals and good attendance. They are seeking drivers through television and radio advertisements as well as through job fairs and, in some areas, door-to-door canvasses.
Industry experts, who attribute the shortage mainly to record low unemployment levels, are worried that the pool of potential drivers has largely disappeared as fewer people pursue part-time work, particularly the kind that involves discipline of and responsibility for children.
And parents are concerned that the shortage is compromising safety, though it is difficult to tell, because there are no statistics on nonfatal accidents and other school bus problems.
Richard Fischer, a school bus consultant based in Peyton, Colo., put the national driver shortfall at 20 percent. In recent surveys by School Bus Fleet, a trade magazine published in Torrance, Calif., more than 70 percent of the nation'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.
"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, whose annual convention here this week was dominated by discussion of the dearth of drivers. "It's not a problem that's getting better, it's a problem that's getting worse."
Schools throughout the country have stretched starting times further apart so that buses can deliver elementary school pupils, loop around to pick up middle school students and then make a third run for high schoolers. Athletes on Long Island and in Florida have forfeited games because they had no way to get there. In Hartford, dozens of students missed breakfast at school and morning classes in September because buses arrived as late as 10 a.m. The student ski club in Aurora, Colo., now has to charter buses to the slopes, and in Caledonia, Mich., field trips must be squeezed in between picking up and dropping off students.
A bus company in New Hampshire is offering to pay for drivers' college tuition, and one in New Jersey is posting fliers on golf courses, suggesting that players drive the morning route, hit the links, then return for the afternoon run. Laidlaw Transit, based in Burlington, Ontario, the largest private contractor in the business with 35,000 buses in 35 states, has hired full-time recruiters and has begun offering a 401(k) plan for the first time in many areas.
In Basalt, Colo., an old mining town near Aspen that has become a bedroom community for service workers at nearby resorts, a driver was straddling two routes, delivering some children to school an hour early and making others wait an hour after classes for their ride home. Then last month, Ronald Goth, who teaches first- through fourth-graders, agreed to take on a second job.
Like several of his colleagues, Goth had obtained a commercial driver's license so that he could take students on field trips without having to hire a bus. While reluctant at first to give up his early morning lesson preparation time, Goth said that picking up and dropping off 65 students at a trailer park each day helped broaden his understanding of his students' lives, and had padded his income to help with expenses for his 9-month-old daughter, Annie.
Of Basalt's nine drivers, six are teachers, and signs posted in the elementary school sound the bell for more.
"She doesn't like to wake up," Goth, 32, said as he turned the key of his hulking bus in the chill mountain air just after sunrise on Thursday. "None of us do."
Kicking tires and checking hoses is not exactly what Goth expected when he chose a career in education. And while he enjoys the serenity of cruising alongside the Roaring Fork River, surrounded by white-blanketed mountain peaks, his responsibility on the road is, in some ways, more daunting than the challenges of the classroom.
"If somebody has trouble reading, I can work with a child over and over until the child gets it," Goth said. "If I injure a child with this bus, it's something I can never get over."
School bus accidents -- like the one last month in Albany that has prompted a $10 million lawsuit against the bus company and its 79-year-old driver, or the one last week in Odessa, Fla., in which a 10-year-old boy was dropped at the wrong stop, four miles from home, and than was struck by a car and killed -- routinely make headlines. But statistically, the big yellow bus is among the safest ways to travel.
About 24 million children, half the nation's students, ride 418,000 school buses 4.5 billion miles a year in the United States. From 1988 to 1998, school buses were involved in just three-tenths of 1 percent of the nation's 416,000 fatal traffic accidents, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says. There have been an average of 128 fatalities per year in school bus accidents, though only 10 percent of those victims were riding on the buses.
"It's safer to be in a yellow school bus going to school than to walk or to have your mother drive you," said a spokesman for the traffic safety agency, Tim Hurd. "There are special mirrors and lights and regulations that make it the safest way to get from point A to point B."
But neither the federal government nor the school transportation industry tracks nonfatal crashes or other incidents, like students being dropped at the wrong place or abandoned in the back of the bus.
Throughout the New York region, there have been notable incidents of children being abandoned on buses, drivers stopping on railroad tracks and buses showing up late or not at all.
A Westchester County grand jury recommended two weeks ago that a trained monitor ride every bus in New York State and escort children off at each stop, and that vehicles have alarms to make sure riders are not left behind.
At the convention here, vendors were hawking devices that survey seats for passengers before drivers leave the bus, suggesting a growing concern.
Industry leaders insisted that the driver shortage is not causing them to cut corners on qualifications and training, but they acknowledged that scrambling for substitutes could lead to safety problems.
"Substitute drivers don't know the routes, don't know the children, can't control the kids," said Steve Hirano, editor of School Bus Fleet. "That's when a lot of accidents happen."
Tracy Sutherland, director of transportation for the Academy School District in Colorado Springs, took her cellular phone along when she drove a route recently because she knew a driver would need her counsel on dealing with a parent.
"The phone rang, I said to the kids, 'I need to pull over to do my other job,'" Ms. Sutherland said.
Managers in most school districts have patched together solutions to cover the shortfall in the short term, but they are worried about the future, especially in light of the growing student population.
In the last decade, requirements for drivers have gotten more rigorous. Federal law now mandates drug and alcohol testing, and most states conduct criminal background checks and physical exams. All this for a job that pays as little as $8 an hour (in large cities like Boston and San Francisco, it can be $16 to $18), often for just four hours a day, starting before most people are awake.
Turnover is high, and many school districts complain that they train applicants only to lose them to more lucrative jobs in trucking once they obtain their commercial licenses.
Robert C. Page, who is president of the national pupil transportation group and director of transportation for the schools in Lawrence, N.Y., on the southern shore of western Long Island, said a Suffolk County company this year spent $100,000 to recruit and another $100,000 to train 92 drivers. Only two remain on the job.
"You can make more money at McDonald's flipping hamburgers," said Mr. Fischer, the consultant.
Many districts are trying to provide longer hours -- either by combining driving with custodial or cafeteria work, or by guaranteeing pay even if there is no midday driving -- because they say their traditional work force of stay-at-home mothers, college students and retired people seems less available.
Private companies are filling out driver schedules with charter work. Contractors and schools alike are allowing drivers to take their own young children on routes, or paying for child care. Health benefits are becoming common even for part-time workers. In Houston, starting salaries rose to $11.22 an hour from $9.36 an hour in one year.
Jean Mann, the transportation supervisor in Lincoln, Neb., started the school year short 40 of 170 drivers. Students sat in gymnasiums while drivers circled back on double and triple routes; office staff members drove every day, then stayed until 10 p.m. to do paperwork.
"Every phone call I get, it's usually somebody complaining about the service," said Ms. Mann, who wore a pewter school bus pin. "After we've said, 'Your children are safe; I'm sorry we're late,' I say, 'Would you like to drive a bus?'"