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Bus driver shortage impacts school start times

A bus driver shortage has districts scrambling. (Photo: KING)

Kids are preparing to head back to school, but there are not enough bus drivers to get them there. A bus driver shortage has districts scrambling, and now some parents have to make a tough decision.

Carissa Robinson, of Kirkland, is one of these parents. Her 4-year-old son Caleb has a rare genetic disease and autism. He is non-verbal, uses an iPad to communicate and uses a feeding tube.

Wednesday afternoon she received an email from the Lake Washington School District informing parents that preschool will now begin 90 minutes later than in previous years because of a shortage of school bus drivers.

“An hour and a half puts us where we are now having to make the decision: pulling our kid out of school or pulling him out of the majority of his private therapies,” Robinson said.

Because of his special needs, Caleb has more than 20 hours of therapy every week – therapy she says is too difficult to reschedule this close to the start of school. Some behavioral therapy programs have long waiting lists, according to Robinson, and have rigid schedules.

“We certainly understand that’s tough for parents – we get that,” Beth Pendergrass said.

Pendergrass started as director of communications and community engagement two months ago, in the midst of a severe bus driver shortage.

“Last Friday the decision was made that we needed to find a way to deal with the bus driver shortage. Those were tough conversations and the decision was made we would need to adjust the schedule for preschool,” Pendergrass said, explaining of the more than 29,000 students in the school district, 333 are preschool students.

Three bus drivers quit on Wednesday, leaving a total of 14 positions open. The district has 104 bus driver positions, and a minimum of 101 is needed to pick up children who qualify for transportation.

It’s the worst shortage in decades, according to the district’s transportation manager Jeff Miles, who explained that more than 10 percent of the available positions are currently open and despite a hiring push this summer, the positions have remained open.

He says the shortage is happening nationwide. Of the country’s 50 largest school bus operators, almost one out of four operators have a severe shortage, according to a School Bus Fleet magazine survey.

Miles says drivers often leave when the economy is good and jobs with better schedules are readily available. Bus drivers earn almost $25.00 an hour as a starting wage in the Lake Washington School District; however, they must work split schedules, which means driving students early in the morning, taking a five-hour break and then returning for the after school drop offs.

Robinson says she understands the district is strapped for resources, but wishes it would have warned parents months ago when the shortage became apparent. Preschool is an important social component for her son.

“We’re left without options because something has to give,” Robinson said, “and we feel, either way, he loses.”

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