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Monday, December 4, 2023

Driver Shortage

District takes steps to address issue

By Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

Carter County is experiencing a bus driver shortage.

Transportation coordinator Ronnie Cooley told the board this in part because of injury and illness. On the west end of the county, he said, they had one driver resign, and another four on long term medical leave. While they took steps to have those routes covered, they also had up to five drivers out due to illness – four of those have now returned – and they don’t have enough substitutes to cover the routes they need covered. Things are no better on the east end, where they’ve also had a resignation and employees off due to illness.

Cooley said they’ve taken steps on both ends of the county to cut the number of routes they need to run by consolidating routes. That leads to its own issue though, Cooley explained, because with buses now full to capacity, there is no way to have the drivers of other routes pick up more children when a driver calls off. There simply isn’t room enough on the bus for them.

They’ve also had trouble recruiting substitutes, he said, because the CDL (certified driver’s license) process is long and complicated, and the hours available to substitutes are just too inconsistent.

Despite that, he said, they are taking steps to fix the situation. He said they continue to advertise and recruit. They’ve had four individuals apply recently, but they don’t all have their CDLs yet.

They’ve also had other staff members, like teachers and principals, step up and begin the process. Three of those staff members are ready to take their driving test, he said, while the others are at various stages of the process.

“We have great people,” Cooley said. “It’s just that the CDL is a long process.”

Superintendent of schools, Dr. Paul Green, said the district has a similar issue with substitute teachers. But, he said, in those situations the schools had more flexibility to make arrangements for instructional staff.

He also added that the problems with substitutes, whether teachers or bus drivers, wasn’t unique to Carter County.

“This is not a Carter County specific problem,” Green said. Other districts and states are facing this issue as well, he said.

While the district is taking steps to resolve the issue, Cooley said if they do have to cancel routes, they won’t always cancel the same routes. He said they would rotate those, so the same parents weren’t always impacted.

Some schools have seen longer pickup lines as a result of cancelled routes, he said. They’ve tried to help there by getting kids to a closer pickup location, such as a grandparent’s, cousin’s, or friend’s home instead, meeting parents halfway as much as possible. This helps the parents on the cancelled routes a little, he said, by cutting the distance they have to drive.

Board president Lisa Ramey Easterling, repeating a question she’d been asked, asked about attempts to secure substitutes on days when routes were cancelled. Cooley assured Easterling that, on those days, he had contacted every available person with a CDL.

Board member Chris Perry, thinking outside the box, asked about the use of vans to carry students instead of buses, since a CDL is not required to drive a van.

Green, however, explained that legally vans couldn’t be used to transport students. It either has to be a bus, which is large and sturdy, or a smaller vehicle with proper seat belts and safety devices. The state was very specific about the types of vehicles that can be used, for safety reasons, he said.

In other bus related news, the board approved the purchase of a new bus for the special needs route. That bus could not be one of the new buses they were receiving from the EPA grant, Cooley explained. The route for that bus is too long for an electric vehicle, he said. It also needs to run the air conditioner for climate control, which taxes the battery power of electric vehicles.

“An electric bus just doesn’t fit the need,” Cooley said.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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