Low wages, split shifts and summers without pay make it difficult for school districts to retain bus drivers. Although a shortage of drivers persists, higher wages may have helped retain and attract more drivers in some Tucson districts, heading into the new school year.
Martha Zamora, Tucson Unified School District director of transportation, says the district has enough bus drivers to get the 15,000 students on 240 routes when school doors open Aug. 1.
The district is looking to hire about 15 to 30 more drivers to cover absences. As it stands today if a driver calls in sick, the district will either have office staff with a commercial license cover some routes, they’ll combine routes or they’ll contract out to a transportation company, Zamora says.
TUSD hires bus drivers year-round and will hire applicants with no experience and train them. The district pays the same wage it did last year at $11 an hour during training and $13.35 an hour after the training is complete, Zamora says.
She says it’s important to find applicants who are the right fit for the unique job: who can work for hourly pay that only lasts 10 months out of the year, who can work in the morning and return in the afternoon after a break and, of course, who like being around a bunch of kids.
Zamora said there tends to be a high turnover rate because of the demands of the job. As well, some drivers find a job during the summer break and end up not returning to the district the following year.
“Always needing drivers is a problem nationwide,” she said. “Every district is trying to figure out: How do we retain drivers?”
Catalina Foothills School District, a smaller district in a more affluent area, is fully staffed with drivers for the start of the school year, said Douglas Huie, director of facilities and transportation.
After dealing with shortages last year, the district raised drivers’ hourly wage from $14 to $16. Huie said that $2 pay bump really helped with recruiting.
Catalina Foothills has always outsourced their transportation needs to a third party, which runs their 27 routes. Through the company, Durham School Services, the district has additional drivers on standby in case of absences, Huie said.
The third party also handles all the preemployment requirements like training and background checks. Most local school districts provide new hires with paid training, but new drivers have to pay the $35 fee for their commercial license test and sometimes additional costs.
Amphitheater Public Schools is still looking to hire 12 drivers, which is fewer vacancies than when school commenced in 2018, said district spokeswoman Michelle Valenzuela. She said to deal with vacancies, some bus drivers will run two routes back-to-back on routes where there’s a large enough time gap. The district also has office staff who are certified drivers and can double as backups.
Valenzuela says bus drivers received raises this year along with all Amphi employees and are now at a starting rate of $14.12 an hour.
After actively recruiting all summer, Sunnyside Unified School District has the number of drivers they need to get their 4,500 riders on 65 bus routes, says transportation director Carlos Valdez. But, he says, the district is still hiring drivers to deal with the high turnover rate.
SUSD pays drivers $12.15 an hour, according to Valdez. Drivers who made $11.57 last school year saw a slight pay increase to account for the new statewide minimum wage that will go into effect in 2020.
As well, Marana Unified School District is looking to hire four bus drivers, which are fewer vacancies than previous years, according to district spokeswoman Tamara Crawley. MUSD has over 100 routes and transports 5,500 students. Along with all MUSD staff, bus drivers received 4% raises this school year and now get paid $13.96 an hour.