In Search Of Bus Drivers For School Routes

Posted: October 29, 1987

When Homer Keaton was looking for a place to build a life for his family, he chose Cheltenham Township because of the schools' reputation for excellence.

He said he has been satisfied with what his 9-year-old daughter is being taught in the classroom. But getting her to and from the Wyncote Elementary School is a different story.

The ride on the yellow school bus has been rocky since the start of the school year because of a serious shortage of drivers. Like other Cheltenham parents, Keaton has complained that the buses are as much as an hour late in picking up children, drivers are unfamiliar with routes, and children are discharged at the wrong stops.

"Here we are, paying one of the highest tax rates, which we are happy to pay, but we want to get what goods and services we pay for," Keaton said.

"I think that if I'm supposed to pay for a school bus service, I should get top service 100 percent of the time."

"We've reached the point where it's more than annoying," he said.

The problem reached a boiling point Oct. 13 when about 25 angry parents attended a school board meeting to complain about the bus service. The district promised to try to correct the problems.

The Cheltenham School District, which is responsible for busing about 4,000 students every schoolday, is not alone in its busing problems. The complaints have been echoed by parents in many school districts in eastern Montgomery and western Bucks Counties.

The widespread frustration over school bus problems boils down to this: There are not enough bus drivers or applicants for the jobs.

"Absolutely, there's a shortage," said Mike Nilan, division manager of Laidlaw Transit in Philadelphia. His company provides service to Lower Moreland and is the parent company of Van Trans Inc., which provides service in Cheltenham and part of Abington.

"Unemployment is down, wages are good, (and ) there is a lot of stability," he said. Within the past year, as full-time jobs became more plentiful, part-time workers, including school bus drivers, quit for the better pay and hours.

"People are opting for full-time work as opposed to part-time work," Nilan said. "It's tough to get people to come in for two or three hours in the morning and again in the afternoon."

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Nearly 50,000 public and nonpublic school students in eastern Montgomery and western Bucks Counties ride buses each schoolday. In charge of their welfare are the bus drivers, who earn $5.75 to about $10 an hour for an

average 25-hour split-shift workweek. To qualify for the jobs, the drivers must have clean driving and police records, a Class Four driver's license and plenty of patience. A clean driving record is considered one without serious motor-vehicle violations or any suspensions.

In addition, they have to be punctual, adaptable, know the area roads well and be able to awaken before dawn.

Some districts run their own services. Others contract out to bus companies.

Some districts have no problems. For example, Jenkintown provides no bus service because the students are within walking distance of the schools.

State regulations say bus service must be available if elementary school students live more than one mile from the school. For middle schools and high schools, busing must be provided if students live more than a mile and a half away.

Upper Dublin, which runs its own system, has been lucky so far, said Norma Withsosky, the district's transportation director.

But Abington, Central Bucks, Cheltenham, Colonial, Hatboro-Horsham, Lower Moreland, Springfield, Upper Moreland and Wissahickon say they have driver shortages.

Albert Filemyr, acting director of support services for the Cheltenham School District, said the district has taken the complaints to Van Trans Inc., the company contracted to run buses for the district.

"The lack of drivers is really a fact," Filemyr said. "It means that the bus company does not react well in an emergency. They don't have enough drivers to send out immediately."

Ed Van Artsdalen, Van Trans Inc.'s director of operations for the Philadelphia area, said five of the 45 drivers assigned to Cheltenham quit the day before school started in September, forcing the company to scramble and press secretaries and mechanics into temporary school bus duty. All company employees are trained and licensed to drive school buses just in case they are needed to fill in, Van Artsdalen said. Many companies and districts do this.

"By the end of this week, we should have a full complement of drivers," Van Artsdalen said Monday.

"What Van Trans is planning on doing is having two full-time relief drivers who are very experienced on all the routes," Filemyr said. "We run 43 bus routes each day. If you have that many, you are going to have people who call in sick."

Leona Flood, director of transportation for the Wissahickon School District, experienced firsthand problems caused by the lack of drivers. Unlike Cheltenham, Wissahickon runs its own bus service.

"During the first three weeks of school, I was driving a bus 75 percent of the time. My assistant and my mechanics were also driving the buses," she said.

She said the problem began last year when the district was unable to find two people to complete its staff of drivers. The district runs 51 buses, which carry a total of 4,500 children.

Flood, who is also president of the State Pupil Transportation Association, said the problem has hit numerous districts across the state.

She said the problem of not being able to find drivers has been particularly bad in Philadelphia's wealthy suburbs.

"In the area we live in, where houses are three hundred or four hundred thousand dollars, people don't need a school bus driver's job," Flood said.

George Romano Jr., who runs the Romano School Bus Co. that his father started in 1953, hired a full-time personnel director last year to help the Norristown-based company find drivers. Romano's has been serving Colonial School District since the company was started.

The company sent out 24,000 fliers in the summer seeking drivers and ended up with only 13 new drivers. Classified ads were put in the newspapers. Highway billboard ads were rented. And the company has offered cash bonuses to drivers who bring in other people to work for the company.

But Romano said one of the biggest problems has been that the company pays less than $7 an hour and many district-run services pay more, up to $10 an hour.

Furthermore, Philadelphia School District problems with drivers spilled over into the suburbs in the fall, when the city district discontinued 60 bus routes and gave students passes for public transit. As a result, 21 experienced bus drivers from Romano's quit and went to the Philadelphia district, which offered higher wages.

Although Romano's has since hired more drivers, the company still needs about 10 more.

To lure people to the jobs, Romano said, his company would be willing to offer higher wages, but that would mean a higher cost to the taxpayer. Higher wages also would mean renegotiating the contract with Colonial School District, which has about 75 bus routes.

"Romano's is perfectly willing to pay more money, but the cost is all going to fall back on the taxpayer," Romano said.

But, he added, even higher wages might not attract more bus drivers.

"It's not a picnic out there for a school bus driver," Romano said.

Drivers must be able to control a busload of students, safely maneuver the large yellow buses on heavily traveled roads, remember all the stops of each run and, above all, do all this on schedule.

When a driver is out and a substitute driver fills in, he or she is not familiar with the route and, oftentimes, the buses are late to the stops. This has caused many complaints from parents.

Colonial school board President William English put it succinctly at a board meeting Oct. 15. He was describing how busy Catherine Johns, director of transportation, has been in fielding complaints about bus problems.

"Since school has started," English said, "it has been like running a complaint department in hell."

"I get used to it, really," Johns said last week, sitting in her office at the newly opened Colonial Elementary School. Maps of the three townships in the district - Plymouth, Whitemarsh and Conshohocken - line the walls. Photocopied maps of six new residential developments also are tacked up on the wall.

"At the beginning of the year, I had lines of parents down the hall waiting to tell me their problem. I felt like I should be giving out numbers, like in a deli," Johns said.

Transportation directors such as Johns expect to get complaints in the beginning of the school year when bus drivers are unfamiliar with routes and run late. But the complaints in all the districts continued this month.

On days when she hears no complaints, which happen occasionally, Johns said she checks her phone to make sure it is working.

"We have many working parents who work out their schedule to accommodate the bus routes," said Johns. "We all live by the clock."

Part of the problem in Colonial came about when the district drew new bus routes after Plymouth Junior High was transformed into the Colonial Elementary School, encompassing children from all over the district. With substitute drivers unfamiliar with the new routes, problems were expected.

But when a driver took vacation and several others were seriously ill, the shortage forced doubling of runs and, thus, incurred delays.

"The ideal is to have a driver who knows the children, the area, the runs, the stops," Johns said, conceding that the situation has not worked out that way this year. While most drivers have been doing Colonial routes for 10 years, routes without steady drivers have suffered.

"This has been the worst year we've ever had," said Johns. The problems for Colonial began in the spring, when some drivers left to take full-time jobs.

But it's good supplementary income for some, said Joe Morris, director of transportation for Central Bucks, the largest school district in the area. The district owns 65 buses, contracts out 25 more buses and transports about 11,500 public and nonpublic students.

The district offers more than $10 an hour in wages, but still has a shortage of drivers, Morris said.

"We're probably among the best paid in the state, but that still hasn't prompted a whole lot of people to come knocking at our doors," Morris said.

When parents call to complain, Nilan, district manager of Laidlaw Transit, said he has to placate the parents the best he can.

"I feel their plight. I have children myself. I can understand their problem. They have schedules to keep, and they gear their lives toward that bus arriving at such and such a time.

"These are people paying good tax money, and they should get what they pay for," he said.

But it's not easy always to solve the problems, Nilan said. Without the drivers, filling the routes is impossible.

Nilan has asked many parents to come work for his company as drivers.

"If they are that concerned, I tell them, 'We've got a job for you.' "

The process of becoming a driver takes five to eight weeks. That is why sudden resignations and absenses because of illness have caused problems this year.

"When flu season gets here, I don't even want to think of what it's going to be like," said Wayne Johnson, who runs the Springfield School District's bus transportation system.

"Yesterday and today I lost two people" who quit, Don Merkel, supervisor of transportation for Abington School District, said last week. "If I don't have 32 drivers, I can't run 32 routes."

Merkel said his job now is to find the people to do the job.

The area districts and companies do their own training. Prospective bus drivers must have 20 hours of classroom and on-the-bus training and clean driving and police records. The companies and districts are required by state law to do record checks on applicants.

One of the main reasons for the long process is that there is a wait of several weeks to take the State Police driving test to qualify for a Class Four license.

"We have sent people to Wilkes-Barre and Gettysburg to take the test," said Romano. Although there are test centers in the area, including Philadelphia and Reading, they did not offer appointments for several months. Since the bus company was in a hurry to fill its vacancies, it sent applicants to the Wilkes-Barre and Gettysburg centers, which offered appointments right away.

"The bottom line," said Merkel of Abington, "is that we need bodies and we don't want to compromise our standards and take just anybody off the street."

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