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School bus driver shortage looms

 


The Grand Coulee Dam School District is “seriously” short of bus drivers.

Recruiting bus drivers hasn’t worked, and “advertising for them the past few years has failed to replace retiring drivers,” bus manager Bill Kemble said this week.

Former bus manager George Davis, who is now the district’s chief mechanic, explained that it’s just the “situation” the district is in.

Although a driver has to work only 17.5 hours a week to qualify for benefits, only a couple drivers currently work that many hours.

Part of the “hours” problem was caused after drivers had to transport to only one school campus, the new Lake Roosevelt Schools in Coulee Dam, eliminating former stops at Center Elementary and Grand Coulee Dam Middle School in Grand Coulee.

The union hasn’t pushed the issue by seeking negotiations to find a solution to the shortage, and the district hasn’t responded to the department’s need for bus drivers. At least two of the drivers have opted to leave over benefit issues.

“We may have to wait until some routes are not covered for a solution,” Davis said.

“Pay rate is not the issue,” Davis explained. “A driver gets $17.34 per hour, and I think that’s generous for what they do.”

“The situation is that having enough drivers to cover the routes is getting to be a critical matter, and in the near future we won’t have enough drivers,” said Davis, who has been in the bus operation for 32 years.

Drivers whose assignments meet the 17.5 hour-a-week requirement qualify for retirement and health benefits, including vision and dental.

But some drivers don’t get benefits because of a lack of qualifying hours, in spite of putting in a lot of time on sports and other extra trips. “Those hours don’t count towards benefits,” Davis said.

Potential new drivers have to go through a rigid qualification process that costs both them and the district a large amount of money.

Davis said that the total cost of hiring a new driver could cost as much as $2,000. Part of that is paid for by the prospective driver and part by the district.

“I remember when I came to the district 32 years ago, Ray Halsey (then bus manager) told me to take a bus out to Elmer City and come back on the River Road,” Davis recalled. “When I returned, Halsey went over and got me the license to drive.”

It’s different now.

Drivers must pass an FBI and Washington State Patrol background check, have a good driving record for the past five years, pass a Commercial Driver’s License test with a passenger endorsement, have 40 hours of classroom training, and pass a physical and drug test.

The district is so short of drivers that Kemble often has to drive.

“We have an elderly man who maintains his license and on occasion will drive for us,” Kemble noted.

Both Kemble and Davis say that a day is coming soon when they won’t be able to cover all the routes.

“We need drivers; it’s as simple as that,” Kemble said.

The union and school board are both aware of that, the two men agree.

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