No end in sight.
That’s the discouraging word when it comes to prospects for restoring school bus routes for families living within a mile of campus.
The Payson Unified School District has had little luck in finding more school bus drivers in the face of a low salary and a statewide shortage.
The district this year found itself about two drivers short of the number it needed to cover all its routes, so the school board stopped picking up kids living within a mile of campus, as allowed under state law.
The district hopes to restore the routes as soon as it can hire enough qualified drivers, but Payson’s had little luck in finding more drivers so far, said Superintendent Stan Rentz. Even if the district hires a driver, the job requires training and a commercial driver’s license, which means putting two more drivers in place and restoring the routes will take time.
“We don’t want to stop and start and stop and start,” said Rentz, regarding the ongoing problem with the bus driver turnover. The job pays just above minimum wage to work a split shift. However, in Payson the job comes with full benefits.
The district did partially restore some routes after some elementary school parents complained their children would have to cross the dangerously busy Beeline Highway.
However, the district’s still not providing buses for students living within a mile of the middle school or the high school, even if they have to cross the highway. State law doesn’t require student transportation within a mile and a half of campus, said school officials.
Payson School Board president Barbara Underwood says the district’s concerned about safety issues — but simply doesn’t have enough drivers. She said she’s been told only eight or nine middle school and high school students who live within a mile of campus have to get across the highway every day.
The district spends $1.4 million on transportation each year, but has been sliding toward crisis for the past several years. Many of the buses have 200,000-plus miles on the odometer and remain prone to breakdowns, often loaded with kids.
The board approved the sale of two broken down buses at its last meeting, so old they finally weren’t worth fixing anymore.
“We have a 1990 Blue Bird — that does not run — also a 2005 Blue Bird Bus that does not run,” said Rentz.
Underwood joked they should auction off such high-quality items. “If you’re a great mechanic — it’s a deal. People are going to be waiting in line for these buses.”
Board member Shelia DeSchaaf took up the wry tone. “We get these high-quality items — like computers made before I was born. Can’t this just be a consent agenda item in the future — I’m all about brevity.”
But no one on the board was laughing about the potential danger to students walking to school in a town without many sidewalks and often heavy traffic.
The district has been scrambling to cope with driver turnover for the past several years. The district several years ago closed Frontier Elementary School and shifted away from neighborhood schools, with grades K-2 at Payson Elementary, 3-5 at Julia Randall Elementary, 6-8 at the middle school and 9-12 at the high school. That means students attend four different campuses during their time in the district and families with kids of different ages could find themselves getting their kids off to two or three different campuses.
Ironically, the first increase in enrollment in several years this year has only compounded the problem — with about 150 more kids needing a ride to school.
Payson this year added a $500 signing bonuses for new drivers, with a payment also for district employees who refer someone. The district several years ago also added health and retirement benefits and paid time off to a job that pays close to the minimum wage. However, the problem may involve more than the low salary and a schedule that requires drivers to show up early, drive their routes, and come back for the second half of their shifts when school lets out. Reports suggest that some drivers have quit in frustration over student behavior on the buses, which the district is also trying to address.
One solution this year was to put money in the budget to put student aides on buses where students have acted out.
Rentz said he hopes some of those changes will reduce the chronically high turnover rate among the 17 workers in the transportation department.
Payson’s transportation costs average $2.69 per mile, one of the few areas in which the state auditor general report dings the district for “very high” costs compared to other districts. The auditor general estimates the district spends $1,573 per rider per year, compared to a statewide average of $1,200. Oddly, other, comparable small rural districts spend $1,037, according to the auditor general’s report.
The whole state faces a bus driver shortage. For instance Mesa Schools started the year 100 drivers short.
School districts face mounting competition for drivers with a commercial license, given the explosion in online retail that requires an armada of delivery trucks.