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Articles: Transportation

The many requirements for becoming a school bus driver may deter people from entering the field.

Several months into the school year, many districts nationwide still face the worst bus driver shortage in recent years. Some are offering signing bonuses and increased wages to attract more people to the job.

Only 6 percent of school bus contracting companies nationally had enough drivers this year, compared to 15 percent with no shortage in 2014, according to a survey from School Bus Fleet magazine. Nearly 30 percent of respondents said they had a “severe or desperate” shortage of bus drivers this year.

At Columbus City Schools, Steve Simmons, director of pupil transportation, can see every move a school bus makes on its trip to picking up students at stops, and dropping them off.

GPS and automated route systems, among other advancements, make bus service more efficient and effective. Despite heightened demands on school transportation in recent years—such as safety and expanded bell times—district administrators and transportation managers can cut costs while creating safe and convenient routes.

Diesel-fueled buses are the most common for transporting students in cities, suburbs and rural areas due to good gas mileage and easy fueling.

Alternative fuel, surveillance cameras, maintenance and driver salaries all play a role in how a district manages its transportation—unless, of course, the district decides to outsource and let an outside company make all those decisions.

Students in Denver Public Schools swipe a bus pass before they get on or off. The date, time, and location are recorded on a secure website that parents and administrators can access.

With the swipe of a bus pass, Denver Public Schools students are answering the often-asked parent question, “Did my child get on the bus today?” Denver joins other districts in Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, and North Carolina trying to improve safety by using a system that tracks when and where students get on and off buses.

More students in Fairfield Community Schools in Goshen, Ind., are taking the bus due to tougher economic times. It increased ridership from about 2,700 in 2009 to more than 2,800 this year. In turn, rides are longer for students. Above, one New Paris Elementary School bus ride is 55 minutes long.

Innovations ranging from on-board music to digital mapping and alternative fuels are making long bus rides better experiences for students while also helping districts make transportation more efficient.

Experience shows that children who spend more time on buses are likely to get bored or behave badly. For rural districts, where hour-long rides are not uncommon and some may exceed two hours, the situation can be especially problematic.

Driver Dawn Lemaster, above, reads to Lake Orion students. She was the Thomas Built Essay Contest Winner 2012—North American School Bus Driver of the Year.

When a bus driver for Lake Orion Community Schools in Michigan grew concerned that riders were bored, she began bringing books and games on board for students to use while in transit.

That became the first step in the development in a special program to promote reading and other learning activities. Through an initiative dubbed BusSTAR (Support Teaching by Assisting in Reading), drivers now assist teachers in the classroom and provide other support during the part of the day when they are not transporting students.

Walking to school combats obesity and increases student concentration, according to a Danish study released last year. Children who walk or bike to school performed better on tasks demanding concentration, such as solving puzzles, than those who traveled by car or bus, the researchers found.

Aside from new transportation routes, Solanco Public Schools also offers kids the option to just stay home altogether.

The Solanco Virtual Academy (SVA) is a district-operated cyber school that offers an alternative to standard instruction by teaching K12 kids at home through computers, with monitoring and evaluation performed by district teachers. “Some children just don’t perform as well in the classroom,” says Keith Kaufman, Solanco’s director of community relations, so Pennsylvania allows students the option to attend school online.

Public and private students living in the Solanco Public Schools district are picked up and dropped off daily at one of five hubs Solanco uses to bus students.

Solanco Public Schools—short for “Southern Lancaster County”—is the fifth largest district in Pennsylvania, spanning 181 square miles. And it means long bus rides for students: 50 minutes for elementary students and an hour or more for middle and high school.

Johnson (top row, center) with students in a welding certification intensive at Kodiak High School.

People hear “rural” and think endless woods and farmland connected by interstates and picturesque windy roads. But in parts of Alaska, rural can mean having to hop on a ferry or a small plane to get from place to place. Eight of the Kodiak Island Borough School District’s 14 schools are on small islands. Only 156 students attend these eight schools; the rest of the district’s students attend schools on Kodiak Island proper. The 21 teachers in these rural schools are required by the district to teach all subjects, making them akin to the teachers in one-room schoolhouses years ago.

Thomas Built Buses, Kansas City (Kan.)


In the 14 years that George Taylor has been with Kansas City (Kan.) Public Schools as the director of transportation, he has seen his fleet of 160 buses age and tire. As maintenance costs began to increase on the 12-18-year-old buses, along with diesel fuel prices escalating, the district was in need of new buses. “Funding has been decreasing over the last five years,” says Taylor. “Maintenance expenses were going up because we had buses that were 12 to 18 years old.”

Persistent tardiness is rampant in Boston Public Schools as a result of miscalculated bus routes, according to the Boston School Bus Drivers Union. According to a grievance filed against school bus provider First Student, Inc. by the union obtained by the Boston Globe, the drivers felt a new GPS computer software system installed failed to account for the heavy traffic in the city and generated routes that are poorly timed.

To keep children safe and prevent school bus accidents, school districts across the nation are cracking down on drivers who pass school buses when children are getting on or off.

The Sand Springs (Okla.) School District just added multiple cameras to its fleet of buses, including on the exterior school-bus stop sign arm. “Cars cannot see students loading and unloading from the bus, and students cannot see an oncoming car. There is no way the driver could stop before hitting the child,” according to Sean Parker, assistant director of transportation for the district.

This year, parents in need of information on bus routes before the first week of school in Palm Beach County (Fla.) School District turned to a new user-friendly program using Google maps developed by Jerry Nyman, the district’s information technology director. Before the Find My Bus Stop application was developed in the fall of 2009, parents had to call the district to find out which bus their child should take, unlike other districts that notify families.

Closure of an interstate highway means many things: traffic backups, lengthy detours, confusing back roads, and a constant headache for the frequent traveler. But what does it mean for school buses when the dependable flow of interstate traffic is the lifeblood for an entire transportation operation?

That's exactly the question the St. Louis-based Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC) had to address when the Missouri Department of Transportation announced the two-step closure of a 10-mile stretch of I-64, five miles per year from January 2008 through December 2009.