At about 5:30 a.m. Thursday, Tumwater School District needed to find a way to cover 13 bus routes.
5:30 a.m. is the deadline for route drivers to call in sick and otherwise, says Jeff Gregory, Transportation Supervisor for the district. Three drivers were out on bereavement, nine called in sick, and four were out on long-term medical leave.
They’d already called in all substitute drivers.
By about 6 a.m., Gregory and the morning dispatcher had almost solved the puzzle: They would both drive buses and call in an afternoon router to cover dispatch, three of the district’s four mechanics would drive routes, the afternoon dispatcher would come in and drive, and they’d split up one route and add its stops to others.
Now, all those routes with extra stops would run late — so would others, thanks to a car-versus-cow crash that shut down Littlerock Road Southwest for two hours that morning. Parents would need to be called, and someone would need to monitor the phones to answer questions.
Welcome to the daily struggle as school districts in Thurston County, and across the state, cope with a shortage of bus drivers.
Until the end of 2019, Gregory says there’d be about seven or eight routes to cover on an average morning. Lately, he says 13 is typical. The situation at North Thurston Public Schools (NTPS) is similarly dire.
Both Gregory and NTPS Transportation Director John Suessman described their current bus driver shortage as “crisis” level. Last Monday morning, both Suessman and Assistant Transportation Director Deanna Maddux drove buses.
“My phone rings every morning at 5:05, 5:10 and it’s the morning dispatcher saying, ‘I’m sorry to bother you John, but I need you this morning,’” Suessman told The Olympian. “’Can you be here by 5:30, 6:10? ...The route directions will be in your mailbox.’”
When administrators are driving buses, that’s less time for working on big-picture goals, watching footage from bus incidents, and supporting staff. And the shortage impacts the students, too.
“We’ve had to pull back, and we’re not able to offer field trips or athletic trips if they impact our home-to-school routes,” Maddux said.
Rhonda Morton, Transportation Director for Olympia School District, which considers itself in a relatively solid position regarding drivers — at least for now — reflected that the district has even had to cancel bus rides for varsity athletics.
A sampling of numbers provided by districts in Thurston County:
NTPS currently transports about 13,750 students with 100 drivers. Suessman says the district is in need of between 25 and 30 substitute drivers to take care of just absenteeism, not including athletics or field trips.
Tumwater School District transports about 6,700 students per day with 86 drivers. Gregory says it needs between 95 and 100 to operate at full capacity.
Olympia School District transports about 6,000 students with 64 drivers, nine who work part-time or occasionally, and four in training. They need 60 to run at full capacity, but the district is actively searching for drivers.
Yelm Community Schools transports about 3,900 students and has about 62 drivers and 10 substitute drivers. It needs seven to 10 of those subs every day. Spokesperson Teri Pablo says adding in sports and field trips makes the situation difficult.
Transportation administrators across the districts agreed that driver shortages are a perpetual issue and not limited in scope.
In a 2016 National Association for Pupil Transportation study, more than half of 1,044 respondents indicated the driver shortage was severe or desperate for their company or school district. At that time, 70 percent of respondents believed the trend was getting a little or much worse.
“These juggling acts go on in any school district, in transportation, in every state, all year long,” Suessman said.
Locally, districts agree the problem intensified about two or three years ago. They point to a variety of factors: local businesses recruiting staff; somewhat strict requirements — including regular drug tests and a training period; laws such as the Family Medical Leave Act that allows for more absences; and a humming economy.
“When the economy’s doing well, we struggle,” Tumwater’s Gregory said. “It’s unfortunate, but if the economy is struggling, we have tons of people wanting to drive a bus.”
One source of competition here: Intercity Transit.
In 2019, IT had a hiring boom spurred by the passage of Proposition 1 in 2018 that increased the sales and use tax to improve and expand public transportation, Heather Smith, Director of Administrative Services, told The Olympian.
The agency hired 102 drivers in the last year and received 588 unique applications, Smith said. It’s a full-time job and runs year-round rather than by school year, and the pay is generally higher than what local school bus drivers earn.
According to the districts’ self-reported numbers: An NTPS driver can make an average of $22 per hour. Tumwater drivers make a comparable amount, and Olympia drivers make just under $20 per hour, plus $1.25 per hour that goes into their retirement through Teamsters.
At IT, the 2020 union contract provides for $20.69 per hour, Smith said, and that increases each year for five years before topping out at over $29 per hour.
Then again, a school schedule is a better fit for some people, with weekends, nights, holidays, and summers off. Some also prefer working with children to the environment on a public bus.
The agency has started working with North Thurston Public Schools, Smith said. Transportation Director Suessman told The Olympian they’re working on an agreement that would perhaps recommend unsuccessful candidates at IT apply to drive for the district.