Helena Public Schools continues to combat bus driver shortage

Helena Public Schools is reaching out to the community to help address a shortage of bus drivers for the 2022-2023 school year.

While the exact number of drivers needed is difficult to pin down, school district spokeswoman Karen Ogden said “we still have a significant number of openings to fill.” Ogden confirmed the district has more than 10 vacant bus driver positions but noted “it can change so fast depending on how many people complete the training.”

Ogden said First Student, the district’s transportation contractor, received 16 applicants in July and 14 so far in August, and many of them are currently in training. 

“Most years in this unit, we’ve never had a driver shortage like we have now. The last couple of years, and of course, the Covid years, were the first time in 22 years that we’ve had to accommodate students because we didn’t have enough drivers,” Tom Cohn, Helena Public Schools director of transportation, said. “Other than that, we’ve been one of the best units in Montana for around 20 years.”

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Cohn noted that one of the factors contributing to the bus driver shortage is that a generation of older drivers left the job because of health risks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He pointed out that the labor market has changed “dramatically” over the past couple of years with nationwide driver shortages.

No final decisions have been made yet regarding permanent route suspensions or rolling bus route suspensions. The final decision on this will come mid-August, when officials have a better feel for the total number of drivers and for the number of students registered, and the public will be notified.

If the decision is to move to rolling bus route suspensions, families may have to transport their children one week out of every month to and from school. This allows the district to run its regular bus routes for families most of the time and not have to cancel any routes permanently. If this is the case, families can receive reimbursement for their week of transportation by completing a new Family Transportation Contract for the 2022-23 school year (https://helenaschools.org/departments/transportation/transportation-forms/).

Prior to COVID-19, around 1,500-2,000 students rode the Helena buses. Now, around 900-1,200 ride the bus. This varies from day to day. With all these students, the buses make around 3,800 stops and drive close to 4,000 miles a day, stated Cohn.

Parents and caretakers are encouraged to register their children for the bus before Aug. 15. Visit https://helenaschools.org/departments/transportation/ for information on how to register.

The district is also working to improve upon the safety of students riding and getting off school buses.

All students swipe a card when they enter and leave a bus, allowing parents and guardians to track their location through the parent portal app. 

The buses have cameras that monitor everyone onboard. They also have new cameras outside that can catch the license plates of vehicles that do not obey the bus stop sign.

School bus drivers are guaranteed four hours of work per day — about two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. If drivers want more hours, they can drive for field trips, extra curricular activities, and more.

First Student is offering incentives including $22-$25.70 per hour based on experience, a 401K, and A Child Ride Along Program where drivers can take their own children on the bus as long as they are well behaved and over the age of 1, which can help alleviate daycare expenses.

There is also a $300 stipend available while training for a commercial driver’s license (CDL). After a commercial learner’s permit (CLD) is attained, the training takes about three weeks to finish to get a CDL, stated Dan Redford, location safety manager for First Student Helena. 

Redford confirmed that there have been drivers who’ve taken advantage of the paid CDL training, obtaining it and then quitting to work at other companies. First Student said it cannot elaborate further on this subject.

There are varying bonus amounts for successfully completing the training, getting hired, and becoming a First Student driver. If applicants complete those successfully but have no experience, it’s a $4,000 bonus. The hiring bonus is paid out in three installments: $1,000 after 20 route days, $1,000 after 75 route days, and $2,000 after 150 route days. If applicants have experience, the bonus amount rises to $6,000.

There’s also a $4,000 employee referral bonus for referral of a candidate who is successfully trained and hired and starts work as a driver for First Student.

For people who may be interested in driving a bus but would like to get a better feel for being behind the big wheel, “Big Bus, No Big Deal” is an event that took place on Aug. 6 and will happen again on Aug. 20 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds. At this event, people can test drive a school bus.

No experience is required to apply. To learn more, visit https://workatfirst.com, select Job Search, and enter your zip code. You can also call First Student at 406-227-7400.

“School bus drivers are the first people that kids see coming to school in the morning. We have a lot of kids who get up without seeing their parents and go to the bus stop, so the first person that they see during the day is a bus driver,” said Cohn. “If the bus driver is a good person, jovial, that is important to a child because that’s the start of their day.”

Megan Michelotti can be reached at megan.michelotti@helenair.com.

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