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WNY school districts facing bus driver shortage weeks before new school year starts

One district is offering a $1,500 hiring bonus to new drivers.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In order to have in-person school, the students need to be able to get there. With a few weeks until classes start, districts are scrambling to recruit new drivers to cover their routes.

"I've been really good with the kids. I like to do little dance offs and stuff when they're getting off the bus, I like to play music to the kids," said Carol Hazlett.

For Hazlett driving a school bus has always been a ball. This is her ninth year driving in the Niagara Wheatfield School District. 

"It was different coming back with the pandemic because of the masks," she told 2 On Your Side. "I really never got to see the kids faces, and it's really important to me to make a connection with the kids."

"This is a rewarding job," said Leslie Buczkowski, Niagara Wheatfield's director of transportation. "You are always the first person in the morning, the first person in the afternoon that that child sees." 

She says finding drivers has already been a challenge for the last few years, so the pandemic labor shortage is just bad timing. They've raised driver wages from $15 to $20 an hour, but they still have plenty of openings. 

"Ten would be wonderful," she said when asked how many drivers she's hoping to hire. "I mean, if we get three or four that would be great, but 10 would be wonderful." 

Consider that the training and driver's test process takes about three to four weeks, and it's crunch time to find people before school starts. 

So, what happens if they can't?  

"We use everybody," Buczkowski said. "We use our mechanics, our laborers, we use everybody." 

Last year, she often found herself behind the wheel of a bus to fill in where she was needed. 

"I'd say probably four out of five days a week," she said. 

It's a reality for many districts. At Salamanca City Schools, they're adding buses and routes this year to keep the kids more spread out, which adds the logistical concern of having enough drivers. 

Superintendent Robert Breidenstein says one thing that makes it hard to find new drivers is that it's a fairly skilled position that requires regular testing. They often try to find people who have retired from other careers and already offer full benefits, including health and dental insurance. On top of that, they're offering a $1,500 hiring bonus for the eight drivers they're looking for right now. 

To create some buzz around the profession, Salamanca City Schools is holding their big bus rodeo event next week for prospective new drivers to see how their skills measure up to the pros. 

"We put up a 10 challenge obstacle course, stopping at railroad tracks, parallel parking the bus, it's a legit road test as to what the drivers would normally experience to get their driving credentials," Breidenstein said, who has completed the course himself.  

"It also helps us understand that when our drivers tell us as administrators that they're experiencing some difficulties with a student or a bus route or transportation times, it's made us more sensitive to the incredibly important job that our transportation department does every single day in well access of a million miles a year."

If you're interested in becoming a bus driver for Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District, call (716) 215-3005, or visit the administration office at 5700 West Street in Sanborn to apply. 

If you're interested in becoming a bus driver for the Salamanca City Central School District, contact Robert Finch at (716) 945-2400 ext. 4995 or stop by the Bus Garage on Front Avenue to apply.