Teachers join ranks of school bus drivers
On Board Online • January 13, 2020
By Ken Goldfarb
While waiting for a school bus to take a track team to a meet last spring, a teacher-coach in the Honeoye Falls-Lima Central School District started chatting with a bus mechanic. "If only I could drive the bus, I could drive us there," she said, half-jokingly.
Terri Northrup, a home and career teacher who coaches track and Nordic skiing, was quickly informed that her Monroe County district was absolutely desperate for bus drivers.
It's a common situation; more than 90 percent of the country's school districts have reported dealing with a shortage of bus drivers, according to the National Association for Pupil Transportation.
Northrup was intrigued. After a course last summer, she passed a rigorous state exam to earn her commercial driver's license.
"We trained the teacher and she successfully obtained a CDL, [completed] finger printing and drug testing, a NYS DMV physical and physical performance standards testing - the whole enchilada!" said Bill Harvey, the district's director of transportation and security.
Now, Northrup drives several sports teams to meets. "I love it," she said.
Northrup said she also would be willing to handle a regular bus run in an emergency. Harvey is hoping it doesn't come to that, but he is definitely feeling short-handed.
"I'm off driving half the time" because regular drivers are unavailable, Harvey said. He also uses his office staff and mechanics to cover routes, invoking mandatory overtime. "It's all hands on deck."
Ditto, said Shea Shreiber, transportation director in the Alexander Central School District in Genesee County. "My mechanics drive. I drive. That's how we get it done."
The shortage of bus drivers "is the number one operational concern" for school district transportation directors, said David Christopher, executive director of The New York Association for Pupil Transportation (NYAPT). In his view, the problem "is almost crippling the industry."
Blame healthy economic conditions. Amid a "surging freight economy," there is a record shortage of 60,800 truck drivers nationally, according to a July report by the American Trucking Associations.
Compared to other employers of CDL drivers, school districts offer lower pay, limited hours, and work shifts that are split into two distinct parts of the day.
In this environment, are teacher/bus drivers going to become a new trend?
"I think it's happening on a limited basis," said Christopher of NYAPT. He noted that there's often a scheduling conflict between the timing of regular bus routes and the times when teachers must be in their classrooms.
As a result, teachers who are willing to take on this added responsibility usually limit their driving to field trips and after-school sports practices and meets.
That's the case for Robert Hollwodel, who teaches technology in the Alexander Central School District and has been a part-time school bus driver for two years.
"I love it," Hollwodel said. "I just went out last night; I took the wrestlers out," he said.
He's been teaching 37 years. He expects that when he retires, he'll take on regular bus routes. "One day, the sun will set on one career," he said, adding he looks forward to the next.
Peter Lawrence, transportation director with the Fairport Central School District, said his Monroe County district has had teachers serving as bus drivers as far back as 1968, although none this year.
Using teachers to drive school buses can sometimes provide "a great opportunity for school districts, but it depends on the culture and climate of the district," he said.
The transportation section of New York Codes, Rules and Regulations allows for "occasional" and "volunteer" school bus drivers, both with less strict requirements than other school bus drivers.
But school transportation directors tend to hold teachers to the same standards as anyone else who wants to get behind the wheel. Teachers who drive "need to be fully trained, fully qualified and fully licensed," Lawrence said. "Student safety is paramount for everyone."
Because teachers tend to love learning new things, someday New York might have a teacher who is not only an experienced school bus driver, but also a certified school bus driver trainer and examiner. Wait, it already does: Brad Countermine of Beekmantown.
Countermine began driving a school bus for a suburban district while he was getting his graduate education degree at the College of Saint Rose in Albany in 2005. He has been a special education teacher for the Beekmantown Central School District near Plattsburgh and currently works for the district as a driver's education instructor.
"Everywhere I've worked I've tried to make myself useful in a variety of areas," he said.
The driver shortage is likely to worsen in coming years, according to experts.
"Our industry could be short just over 100,000 drivers in five years," Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, said in a recent news release.
But Costello noted CDL drivers tend to have a strong preference that would work in school districts' favor: "more time at home."
Editor's Note: For more on New York's school bus driver shortage, see NYSSBA's February 2019 report, "Yellow Buses, Red Flags" at www.nyssba.org/news/reports.
Show Other Stories