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Seattle, Highline school districts struggle to hire enough bus drivers

For Highline Public Schools, a staffing shortage meant some students on one bus route were late for the first day of school.

BURIEN, Wash. — School districts are dealing with bus driver shortages. The nationwide issues is being felt in Western Washington.

For Highline Public Schools, it meant some students were late for the first day of school. The delay only impacted one bus route. While it was a small disruption, the district says it does highlight why they would like to hire five to ten more drivers, but right now that is a challenge.

Early this morning, some families received a text message alerting them that Route 113 was expected to be delayed 30 – 40 minutes due to staffing shortages.

"It was just the one route that we knew was going to be significantly late,” said Catherine Carbone Rogers, the Chief Communications Officer for Highline Public Schools.

Rogers says it was just one route because last night the district learned they'd be short one driver.

"We have enough to cover all our routes, but if anybody's absent, we don't have enough substitutes. And so, we really would like to hire more bus drivers,” Rogers said.

Highline Public Schools is not alone. The National Association for Pupil Transportation says the industry is dealing with a significant shortage of school bus drivers. Hop Skip Drive, a transportation company, says they surveyed a wide range of school transportation directors and 88% reported they have been constrained by the driver shortage.

"It is an issue for us in certain markets as well. We have been very fortunate in Seattle that our team has done an excellent job in recruiting,” said Scott Gulbransen, the Senior Director of Communications for First Student.

First Student is one of the two companies that will be providing Seattle Public Schools with transportation this school year. Over the past 30 years, First Student was responsible for all of the bus routes, but now there is a second provider, Zum.

"They split it right down the middle between the two of us. It was 184 routes each,” Gulbransen said.

Zum needs to ramp up and hire drivers before taking on all 184 routes.

"So we, in discussion with them, were asked to take on 78 of those routes,” said Gulbransen.

The temporary arrangement is expected to last through December. A Zum spokesperson said in a statement:

Zum stands ready to get students to school as planned. Our contract was awarded in August with an expectation to ramp to 50% of SPS transportation by January 2023, and we are executing exactly on that plan. Zum is bringing a brand new bus fleet, hiring & training drivers, and introducing technology that makes rides safer for Seattle students and families.

In the race to recruit new hires, Zum is offering incentives, and back in Burien, Highline Public Schools is doing the same.

"We pay for their training and everything that they need to get the commercial certification,” said Rogers.

Highline Public Schools is accepting applications for drivers. On the district’s website, it says new hires can make about $30 an hour.

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