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School bus drivers in demand in Pennsylvania, nation

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Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

School bus driver recruitment and retention are a constant struggle, transportation experts say.

“I can tell you, just by the nature of the job — the hours, the split shifts, the children — this is a problem we're tracking all over the country,” said Kate Current, operations and membership coordinator for the National School Transportation Association.

Diane Stambaugh, 58, of South Side Slopes picked up her first route 21 years ago as a convenient, part-time way to make extra money for her young family. Now, as president of Local 1743 Pittsburgh chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union, she negotiates wages and off time for about 275 drivers.

Union workers get paid personal and grace days with a two-hour shift in early morning and another in mid-afternoon, most worth $17.48 an hour. Part-time employees don't accrue insurance or retirement benefits, she said.

“Reliability is the main thing. You can't call off for work. If I don't show up, kids won't get to school,” she said.

Chartiers Valley, Plum and Upper St. Clair have increased recruiting efforts since June.

“Standard advertising methods help, but we find word-of-mouth from our existing drivers is usually the best way to bring more people in,” said Upper St. Clair Superintendent Patrick O'Toole. “We're good now, but historically there have been periods where it has been very difficult to find drivers.”

Drivers undergo rigorous background checks and training to meet state and local standards.

“We're always hiring,” said Ben Roenigk, manager at the South Butler branch of W.L. Roenigk Inc. “A lot of our drivers have been doing this for 10 or 15 years. They love the kids, but getting new drivers in can be tough. There are a lot of hoops to jump through.”

A bus driver must have a commercial driver's license, or CDL, and undergo a check of his or her driving record; an Act 34 criminal history check; child abuse clearance; FBI fingerprint background check; and pass a pre-employment drug test, Roenigk said.

Most companies train employees to get their class B CDL with a passenger endorsement, which entitles them to drive a school bus.

Drivers undergo state-mandated training for child abuse identification and reporting.

Roenigk said most drivers spend two months preparing before they pick up a shift, a wait that deters a lot of potential applicants.

“We need 57 drivers to fulfill our routes,” said Plum Superintendent Tim Glasspool.

The district needs five full-time drivers, one bus aide, and substitute drivers and aides. If they don't fill those positions soon, they'll turn to a contractor, he said.

Penn Hills struggled in 2011 when it switched to a national contractor, First Student.

“They took us on with only 30 to 45 days' notice,” said Richard Liberto, the district's director of business affairs. “So it wasn't all their fault.”

The district just signed a five-year agreement with AJ Myers & Sons. Company Manager Shannon Laney said he needs two or three drivers to fill the Penn Hills order.

“You have to be a special person to do this,” Laney said. “Every day, you've got a busload of 65 students, all going down the road yelling and having a good time. For some people, that's really stressful, but for most of us, it's like family.”

Megan Harris is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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