Faced with a severe shortage of school bus drivers, Springfield-area districts have been getting creative.
They've raised starting pay, offered financial incentives and beefed up benefits.
But with the national shortage of drivers getting worse, not better, a growing number of school leaders have obtained or are pursuing a commercial driver's license.
Republic Superintendent Matt Pearce confirmed this week that he and Jason Perkins, executive director of operations, are going through the process of getting a commercial driver's license, or CDL.
"In case we are needed, we will be ... ready to go and help so we can get our kids to school or home or activities," he said.
It is not uncommon in small or rural districts for multiple members of the central office staff — even the superintendent — to have a CDL and drive a school bus regularly, or as needed.
A News-Leader review of superintendent contracts a few years ago showed overseeing transportation, in a hands-on way, was listed as a duty for superintendents or assistant superintendents in a smattering of smaller districts.
However, it is less common for top-level administrators in medium-sized and larger districts to have a CDL or be called on to regularly drive a school bus.
Pearce said Republic school employees, especially teachers and support staff inside the classrooms, have been going above and beyond expectations during the pandemic that started in March 2020.
He said with all staff taking on extra work, this was another way he and Perkins could be helpful. They've passed the written tests and are in the middle of training and physicals.
"The school bus is the start of the day and it's the end of the day. We always tell our transportation employees that they are the first people to see our kiddos and the last people to see our kiddos," he said. "And as a leader and as a parent, it would make me quite sad if we could not get our kids to school and get them home or take them to events we know are important."
Pearce said the ability to staff and operate school bus routes is a critical piece of being able to have school.
"We know how important seated, in-person instruction is. We know how important that activities are to our kids, especially as we work through the pandemic," he said.
"We know what kids need best and not being able to pick up every kid on time or get them home on time for activities, that hits pretty close to home as a leader and a parent and something that we wanted to avoid."
In Everton, a rural district north of Springfield in Dade County, school buses are driven by a veteran group of drivers.
"If COVID hits them, it's really going to affect our ability to get our kids to school and with 90 percent of our kids riding the bus, it makes a big difference," said Superintendent John Lawrence.
For that reason, Lawrence obtained a CDL, as did a school custodian and a retired truck driver from the area.
"We all went and got our CDL and I have a real, real respect for our bus drivers after going through all the testing, book work, the written test, the driving test. I tell you what, it was stressful but we got it done," he said. "Now we have a backup plan in case something goes wrong."
Springfield Deputy Superintendent John Mulford, who has worked in districts of different sizes, acknowledged it's a "pretty common practice" for administrators in smaller districts to have a CDL.
"What you're seeing is districts that haven't traditionally had to do that are now asking their administrators, including their superintendent, to get their CDL just as a backup because of the need," he said.
Mulford said the Springfield district has typically had a roster of regular drivers as well as substitutes. In addition, numerous individuals in the transportation department such as the trainers, mechanics, and dispatchers have a CDL because of the roles they play.
During the pandemic, and the severe staffing shortage that has accompanied it, other transportation staff have repeatedly been pulled off their duties to drive a route.
"That is our first line of defense, as far as a backup," he said.
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Amid school bus driver shortage, MO school leaders getting their CDLs