Bus driver shortage is so severe that these Kansas City area schools cut back routes

Luke Johnson/The Kansas City Star
·4 min read

The Raytown school district was forced to cancel bus routes about 11 times per month last school year due to a severe shortage of drivers. Now officials are predicting a troubling staff shortage for the coming school year as well.

As a result, the district will bus elementary students only if they live at least a mile away from their school, as opposed to a half-mile in previous years. And middle and high school students now have to live at least 1.5 miles away to be eligible for the bus.

Last week, the Independence school district announced a similar decision as it has been unable to fill enough bus driver positions. The district said that bus routes only will be available to middle and high school students who live more than 1.5 miles from their schools. The change does not affect elementary students.

“We hope as much as you do that this is a temporary change, and our Transportation Department is doing its best to work with current circumstances,” district officials said in a letter to families. “Please consider carpooling with other families, coordinating a joint pickup and drop off plan, or mapping out a walking path with your student.”

Across the Kansas City metro, school districts are struggling to hire enough staff in time for classes to start later this month, dealing with the ongoing effects of the national labor shortage and COVID-19 pandemic. Districts say that several bus drivers retired or quit during the pandemic. Many drivers lost their jobs when classes went online, and some didn’t return last year as COVID-19 cases spiked.

And school districts have struggled to find new licensed drivers in the tight labor market.

This summer, districts have been recruiting drivers early, and offering competitive pay and incentives to try to attract enough drivers. In the North Kansas City district, qualified and licensed bus drivers can earn a $1,000 signing bonus.

And Kansas City Public Schools is offering a $2,000 signing bonus for bus drivers. Employees can also earn a $500 referral bonus by recruiting another driver.

Without enough drivers last school year, KCPS eliminated 25 bus routes and redirected other buses to pick up students in those areas. The district has been working to avoid making that same call this school year.

The Kansas City district needs about 145 bus drivers to be fully staffed, and in July had 110 committed to the job, officials said. Spokeswoman Elle Moxley said on Monday that stronger recruitment efforts are so far paying off, with 20 bus drivers currently in training. She expects most of them to be driving by the first day of school.

“We’re excited — this is the most drivers we’ve had in training in the beginning of August in many years,” Moxley said. “…That said, we have moved to a continuous recruitment model for bus drivers. We will continue to recruit even though we have reached a number we feel will maximize route efficiency heading into the first few weeks of school.”

Districts aren’t just hurting for bus drivers. They are facing a shortage of employees across the board. State education officials have predicted unprecedented teacher shortages. And districts are still working to recruit other employees, such as food workers, custodians and paraprofessionals before the school year begins. Some districts are considering limiting lunch options, as they did last year, because they don’t have enough cafeteria staff.

But a lack of bus drivers might be the first thing students notice as they return to classes.

Districts like Raytown are hoping to avoid the situation they were in last year, when they warned parents that they should plan an alternative way to get their kids to school in case their bus does not arrive.

Kevin Easley, Raytown’s transportation director, said in a letter earlier this year that the district had 12 routes without a driver due to resignations and retirements, and not enough new applicants to fill those roles. To address the staffing shortage, the school board agreed to limit bus routes for this upcoming school year.

Easley told the school board that the district canceled bus routes 56 times last school year. An average cancellation makes it harder for about 168 students to get to and from school. He said office workers, coaches, assistant principals and technology staff were driving buses when no one else was available.

“I truly believe the effort of the staff members in this department have kept the cancellation number from ballooning into the hundreds,” he said.