NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — The Niagara Falls City School District needs more school bus drivers, but until it can hire dozens more, some changes will be in place when students head back to class this fall.
Superintendent Mark Laurrie says 80 is an ideal number of school bus drivers to transport the 5,000 students who take the bus. Right now, they only have 45 drivers on the books, and on any given day, 35 to 37 are able to work when you factor in sick days, vacations, and personal time off.
Recruitment is underway, but in the meantime, the high school start time will change — students will start at 7:55 a.m., 20 minutes earlier than last year. High school students will still leave at 2:30 p.m. (30 minutes earlier than usual). The latter time change was put into place last November to help with the bus driver shortage.
"The way to really address that wasn't to hope and pray people would show up. The companies are still doing very active recruitment, but we had to alter the times so one driver could do two or three runs and have enough time to safely get from one school to the next," Laurrie said.
All of this is to allow bus drivers to pick up and drop off the older kids and still have time to transport middle and elementary school students.
The school bus driver shortage isn't unique to Niagara Falls. There are signs advertising available driver positions at districts across Western New York.
So what's driving the driver shortage?
Laurrie says he's seeing a combination of things — though the pay can be competitive, the split shift isn't always appealing to applicants, especially younger people. He said he's also heard of drivers with and without CDLs going to work for package delivery companies where there's not the added stress and responsibility of transporting dozens of children.
Laurrie adds that an already small pool of eligible drivers with CDLs gets even smaller if people don't pass the background checks and drug tests. Out of a recent pool of 24 potential drivers, they hired just two.
And once people are hired, training still takes eight weeks in the best case scenario.
"Buses are now driving instructional time, and that's not the way education should be," Laurrie said.
Laurrie said his district is also in need of teacher aides, and something had to be done to entice more people to apply.
So this summer, the administration asked the CSEA union to open their current contract and renegotiate two years early so they could increase pay to around $20 or more per hour.
Laurrie said the pay needed to be more competitive.
"Fast food employment can pay $17 to $18 an hour, but our associates caring for special needs children were making $12 or $13 an hour. It's incongruous to think your burrito can be made by someone making $5 more than somebody who's caring for the preciousness of a special needs child. We had no other option. It was the right thing to do for the workers," Laurrie said.
The school district is holding a job fair on Tuesday, August 9 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Abate School in Niagara Falls. The bus company that works with the district is looking for drivers, and the school administration is looking to hire for various hourly positions.