Job has its benefits — and some challenges
The fluorescent-green banner seeking new school-bus drivers — and offering free training — has been displayed on the bus barn all year. But the Methow Valley School District is still having trouble finding new drivers, said Bill Bailey, who trains new drivers and is the mechanic and a bus driver himself.
“We can’t even let people retire around here — that’s how bad it is,” Bailey said.
Every school across the state has signs looking for drivers, school district Operations Director Bud Hover said. In Hover’s seven years on the job, although recruitment has always presented a challenge, things are easier now that Bailey’s a certified trainer, so the district can offer the training here, which otherwise costs several thousand dollars, he said.
The school district currently has 10 drivers, including Bailey, and two substitutes for 11 routes — nine regular routes, a special education bus and a Head Start bus.
The district has had to combine some routes and often has to juggle the afternoon shift because drivers have taken students to extracurricular activities or sporting events, Bailey said.
The schedule, which includes a break between morning and afternoon shifts, is ideal for some but poses challenges for others, Bailey said. A typical day starts at 6 a.m. — earlier in the winter — and can end at 6 p.m., after clubs and other after-school activities. Some routes, such as Lost River or Gold Creek, take about three hours every morning and afternoon.
The Methow school district covers one of the largest geographic areas in the state, but the district tries to keep students’ time on the bus under one hour. Many districts have eliminated or shortened routes, but the Methow district has maintained most of them, Hover said.
The job brings lots of rewards. Drivers regularly get appreciative notes from kids. Bailey recalls taking the time to talk one on one with a student. Years later, at graduation, the student told Bailey that getting the personal attention had meant a lot and helped him stay in school.
“If you like working with kids, it’s fun — it’s a challenge,” Bailey said.
The district provides all the necessary training for a commercial drivers’ license and the school-bus endorsement.
For the licensing exam, they need to be able to identify every part under the hood, from the engine to the air compressor, as well as parts of the chassis, suspension and exhaust. In addition to driving the bus and keeping order on the bus, drivers inspect all mechanical and safety systems every morning.
They’re not expected to know how to fix things, but have to flag cracks or leaks for the pre-trip inspection, Hover said. That requirement can be intimidating to some aspiring drivers, Bailey said.
Some drivers combine the schedule with other jobs, while others appreciate having time to do other things midday. Some are retirees earning extra income.
Most drivers work extra hours, for athletic and field trips, which provides the opportunity to earn overtime pay. Drivers who work more than four hours per day get year-round benefits.
The fact that a commercial drivers’ license is governed by federal rules means that people are subject to random drug tests, which may dissuade some potential applicants, Hover said. While recreational cannabis is legal in Washington, it’s not legal on the federal level, and traces of cannabis can remain in the bloodstream for up to a month, he said.