October 19, 2011

School Board wrestles with finding bus drivers

By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

Finding and keeping school bus drivers has become a big problem for the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1. And it is a problem that, so far, the district hasn’t been able to solve.
With the vast majority of students attending McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 arriving to school daily on school busses, when the district doesn’t have drivers for designated routes, the problem magnifies for school administrators as well as for parents and students.
“This district runs on our busses,” stated Kelly Norby, school board president, during the board’s meeting on Oct. 11. “We need to find a solution to getting more bus drivers.”
But the problem of finding bus drivers, according to Steve Holen, district superintendent, is not going to be easy.
“We have advertised our open bus driving positions in the newspaper and have posted the openings with Job Service,” stated Holen. “We didn’t get any response.”
According to Holen, the latest challenge came when a driver submitted their resignation after the school year started, which has left the route running south of Watford City open.
“We thought we had found a replacement driver, but that fell through,” stated Holen. “At this time, we have a high school teacher who will drive that route on a temporary basis until another applicant can obtain their commercial driver’s license.”
And according to Holen, even if the district secures a regular driver for the affected route, the district is not out-of-the-woods when it comes to finding and keeping bus drivers.
“It’s a true challenge to keep the bus routes going,” stated Holen. “It’s going to be hard for us going forward to keep drivers and to find new drivers for the new routes that we need to add because of an increasing student population.”
Because of increased enrollment numbers, according to Holen, the district could add two more bus routes right now if drivers were available.
“We can continue to Band-Aid this together for a while,” stated Holen. “But we need to have a bigger pool of drivers.”
And according to Holen, two issues seem to be keeping people from applying for bus driver positions - salary and the current driving conditions in the county.
“As far as salary goes, we have a very competitive wage scale when compared to other school districts,” stated Holen. “But our pay is an issue. And our wages aren’t comparable to what drivers with a commercial drivers license can make in the oil field.”
As a result, Holen recommended that the board explore the district’s whole salary/benefit package for bus drivers.
But when it came to the subject of the current driving conditions in the county, Holen had no solution.
“The driving environment here right now has a lot of people spooked about taking on the responsibility of being a school bus driver with all of the traffic,” stated Holen.
And with 11 of the district’s 18 bus drivers being female, Holen believes that the stress caused by the heavy traffic volumes during the times when the school busses are running is becoming an issue with the drivers.
“If someone leaves as a bus driver, we simply don’t have any backup drivers available right now,” stated Holen.
For Nevin Dahl, who is one of the district’s patrons who has been without bus service, the solution lies strictly with paying the drivers more money.
“The oil industry is going to drive everything out here,” stated Dahl. “It’s going to be harder and harder to find drivers. Is it going to cost more money for school bus drivers? The answer is yes.”
During Tuesday night’s meeting the school board also approved spending $10,000 to hire ICON Engineering of Grand Forks to assist the district in planning for future growth needs.
“We need to know where we’re going from this year forward,” stated Gary Bruins, a member of the district’s building committee. “We have a good handle on this year, but it’s like throwing darts when we look into the future as to what our building needs are.”
In anticipating this year’s increased student enrollment, the district converted all open space at the elementary school into classrooms. But if the district continues to experience more growth in student numbers, it will need to explore the best way to house the students.
“Options that we need to consider are adding portable classrooms at the elementary school or building an additional building on the elementary school grounds,” stated Norby. “We have a long-term need for more building space.”
In other  business, the school board:
• Approved the open enrollment applications for Hunter Hopson, Macy Hopson and Jonathon Russell to attend the Killdeer School District.
• Was informed by Supt. Holen that as of Oct. 5, the district’s total enrollment was 715 students with 399 student in the elementary school and 316 students in the high school.
The next meeting of the McKenzie County Public School District No. 1 school board will be held at 6 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 14.