Charter buses at Mid-American Coaches

Charter buses sit outside of Mid-American Coaches April 19 near Washington. Mid-American Coaches has been contracted by the Washington School District this fall to transport students to extracurricular activities amid a bus driver shortage. 

Bus driver shortages have left Washington School District officials scrambling to find transportation for after-school activities.

“I know we’ve had to be extremely creative,” Washington Assistant Superintendent John McColloch said. “I know we’ve used Mid-American Coaches on (Highway) 47. We’ve used school vans and vehicles and those types of things. As far as I know, so far we’ve made everything, but this fall as we continue to go through the season, it’s becoming quite a challenge.”

Loyd Bailie, general manager of Mid-American Coaches & Tours, could not provide district-specific numbers but said as of Sept. 23, the company had covered 71 high school activities and five trips for grade schools since the beginning of the year. He said the majority of those trips were for area schools and added that his office fields as many as five or six calls on a daily basis from schools needing a bus. Several times, Bailie said, he’s had to turn down a trip because of his own bus driver shortages.

First Student, a student transportation company based in Cincinnati with an office in Washington, buses more than 7,000 students in the Washington, Union and Autumn Hill school districts to and from school.

Tim Porter, First Student’s Washington location manager, said a point of pride is the fact that despite being short-staffed, First Student has been able to cover all 111 before- and after-school routes every day. It’s an accomplishment he attributes to the hard work of his team. “They pull a rabbit out of their hat every single day,” Porter said. “People think that routers and the dispatchers really only work during route time. And my routers and dispatchers probably have worked more overtime now than they ever have. They work all day long and sometimes all night long, making sure that the next day happens.”

Where First Student falls short, however, is driving athletic teams, clubs and other extracurricular organizations to their events, which drivers are asked to cover on a volunteer basis.

“(The districts) have been very gracious, working with us, trying to adjust times and so forth,” Porter said. “Unfortunately, with limited manpower, you can only do what you can do. You know, the kids’ education is first. The homes-to-school routes have to get handled and take precedence over everything else.”

Porter said an ideal number of drivers at First Student would be around 120. He wouldn’t say how many drivers short the company is, but he said many drivers have been forced to drive parts of routes on top of their normal course. People who don’t normally drive, including front office workers, mechanics and Porter himself, also are picking up routes.

Porter said he initially thought the shortage of bus drivers could be partially blamed on increased federal unemployment benefits provided during the pandemic, but since those benefits ended in June, Porter said he has only seen a marginal uptick in applications for the positions. 

Washington High School Activities Director Bill Deckelman said no after-school events have been canceled yet, but he said we’re only seeing “the tip of the iceberg.”

“The rest of it’s going to show its face as we continue to go along,” he said. “I don’t know when this is going to get better.”

The only time Washington would ask students to drive themselves to an event would be if the event was held in town, Deckelman said, but he has had to ask parents to help out with transportation to events. The biggest help has been Mid-American Coaches, which Deckelman called “a savior.” The bus company is usually only called for post-district events as a sort of treat for success, but now it drives every team that has to leave before 4:15 p.m., several a day.

Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Kephart did not disclose how much the district has spent on the charters but said the rates charged were reasonable, and the district was able to incur the expense “without too much overhead.”

Meanwhile, to entice applicants, First Student is offering hiring bonuses of $500 for bus monitors and $2,500 for driver applicants with a commercial driver’s license. And for people who may be nervous to drive a commercial vehicle, Porter said he offers them a quick tutorial and the opportunity to drive around the parking lot before applying. If non-CDL holders want to apply, they would get a $2,000 hiring bonus and training to get certified. The union for drivers, Teamsters local 610, also negotiated with First Student for a $2.50 raise in the summer — up to $17 an hour.

One of the road blocks for some, Porter said, is the schedule. Drivers work a couple hours in the morning and a few more in the afternoon. Retirees are often well suited for the job that takes up 25-30 hours per week, Porter said, and First Student is looking into options for people who might be able to work for just the evening or just the morning.

Although the reprieve will only be temporary, McColloch said the winter sports season will provide some relief. With later tipoffs and fewer teams, the season should be less of a challenge to cover.