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LSSD in need of bus drivers

Minnehaha bus driver Cindy Svee greets students as the board her bus for the ride home Monday afternoon. (News-Chronicle photo by Jamey Malcomb)

On a sunny Monday afternoon at Minnehaha Elementary School in Two Harbors, Cindy Svee was greeting her students as they climbed aboard her bus and one of the children handed her a wildflower she had picked on her way to the bus.

Svee returned the gift with a huge smile, thanked the student and continued to greet all the students climbing aboard, but people like Svee, those willing and able to drive Lake Superior School District students to and from school, are vanishing.

"We're a very large area to cover and it's getting more and more difficult," said Two Harbors bus dispatcher Denis Wagner. "We're like everybody else, we're getting to be an aging workforce and it's not as an attractive of a job as it used to be."

LSSD is the largest district in Minnesota, geographically, with its buses driving more than 1,000 miles each day getting students to and from school, requiring a laborious effort each day from the drivers staffing the 16 bus routes for schools in both Two Harbors and Silver Bay.

Wagner said in the past many stay-at-home moms were bus drivers and with less people staying at home with kids, those numbers have decreased. In addition, the requirements for licensure have increased significantly. Wagner said it used to be a 30 minute exam for licensure, but now bus drivers must possess a commercial driver's license with endorsements for both passengers and buses as well as a short course and behind the wheel training.

"There's nothing wrong with safety, but it makes it harder for people and it's been an obstacle," Wagner said.

LSSD Superintendent Bill Crandall said another issue causing the shortage is bus drivers are considered part-time employees and are not eligible for full benefits from the district.

"Another issue that could be keeping people away is the news, when you get right down to it," Crandall said. "All the issues of teachers saying one wrong thing to a child and all of a sudden a teacher is being sued, a bus driver is being sued or let go because of this or that. That may scare some people away saying, 'You know, I don't even want to put myself in a position where that might even happen.'"

With incidents between faculty, bus drivers and students frequently ending up on YouTube or even the local news, most negatives of being a driver are broadcasted for the world to see, but the job can be a rewarding one, too. Since some students spend more than an hour on the bus to and from school, drivers spend significant amounts of time with students and get to know them really well.

"It's very rewarding in that respect, too," Crandall said. "You get to see the kids, you get to know them and you are, in essence, a traveling classroom. You get to form those relationships that will last for many years."

Crandall also said many times sports teams will request the same driver from week to week when they are winning, and the camaraderie that develops results in the driver and teams adopting each other.

The bus driver shortage isn't unique to Lake County or even Minnesota. Shortages are occurring all over the nation and districts are starting to get creative with reimbursing potential drivers for their education or even offering signing bonuses. Last year the St. Cloud Area School District was offering a $500 bonus to people signing up to drive for the district.

Crandall said LSSD has not yet considered signing bonuses or education reimbursements for potential drivers, but if the district receives a few more driver retirements this summer, they may need to look at the possibility. Crandall has also reached out to Hibbing Community College about offering its CDL certification class through the district's telepresence, though that would not make up for the required behind-the-wheel training. Bus drivers also received a raise during the last contract negotiations with the district, but it could be considered again if the driver shortage increases over the summer.

"Those are some considerations we may have to look at down the line," Crandall said. "It's getting close to that point where, if we get some more retirements, all of a sudden, we're not going to have enough drivers to get our kids here. We'll either have to look to an outside vendor or we start doing something along those lines like get creative with some signing bonuses or pay for your education to become a driver."

Wagner said the district already had to contract out most of the travel for the Two Harbors track and nordic ski teams to Voyageur Bus Co., the company providing busing to Duluth Public Schools.

Crandall said bus drivers must be at least 18 years old and must pass both a background check and a drug screening.

To apply to be a bus driver, contact the LSSD office at 834-8201 or go to www.isd381.org.

Jamey Malcomb

Jamey Malcomb started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle in August 2015. Malcomb is a native of North Carolina and holds a bachelor's degree in English and history from the George Washington University and a master's degree in education from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Malcomb moved to Minnesota in July 2012 and previously worked as a sports clerk and news assistant at the Duluth News Tribune. He is the beat writer for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, Silver Bay City Council and high school sports in Lake County. 

(218) 834-2141
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