Education

School Districts Continue Scrambling for Bus Drivers

As bus driver shortages interfere with extracurricular activities, some schools have turned to parents as temporary solutions

By Skye Lucas
Buses are parked at Columbia Falls High School on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Across the Flathead Valley, industry-wide bus driver shortages are interrupting students’ ability to attend fall sports contests, leading to game cancellations and rescheduling. 

Unable to secure drivers, Glacier High School canceled the Sept. 3 soccer matches for both boys and girls in Missoula. Glacier Activities Director Mark Dennehy has rescheduled the matches against Big Sky for Sept. 14 and Sentinel for Oct. 9. 

“It’s the first time in my 20-plus years of doing this that we’ve had to cancel or reschedule games” due to driver shortages, Dennehy said.

To avoid the reoccurring cancellations, schools in various districts are adopting a temporary transportation system where parents are the drivers. Recently, parents drove Glacier student golfers to their Sept. 10 match in Libby.

That same day, a fleet of parents drove Flathead High School’s junior-varsity football team to its game in Helena. With no drivers available, parents teamed up to transport the 40 players in their 10 privately insured vehicles to avoid the game’s cancellation.

Unable to secure bus drivers for boys and girls soccer matches against Butte on Sept. 9, Flathead High School Activities Director Bryce Wilson arranged to host Butte at home. To avoid future cancellations, Wilson predicts more games will have to occur on weekends. As of now, Flathead’s soccer teams are set to travel to Butte on Oct. 16.

“The problem is that we have no substitute drivers,” Wilson said. 

Full-time drivers are responsible for transporting students to and from school. Without substitute drivers, teams must wait for primary drivers to complete routes, which often take too long. 

The Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) district owns 14 buses and, at present, its own drivers cover approximately 50% of routes, while the district also contracts with four separate transportation companies. According to Kalispell Superintendent Micah Hill, that’s still not enough. 

Similar to KPS, Polson School District is struggling to hire enough drivers to transport students and currently operates at a 30% driver deficit this year. The district’s transportation director, Mike Anderson, has tried to fill the gaps utilizing teachers and administrators as activity drivers.

“The students must get to school and events, but we don’t have enough drivers,” Anderson said. “We can adjust the scheduled times a little, but we don’t have room to consolidate routes, and because this shortage is industry-wide, we can’t look to charter companies for help.”

Polson plans to implement a substitute incentive program, where it will pay its substitute quarterly bonuses upward of $200. The district’s communications director, Scott Boen, believes that additional substitutes will give support to drivers should they need to take a sick day.

“For our students’ sake, I sincerely hope that more candidates show interest in our open bus driver positions,” Boen said. 

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