How to Combat Bus Driver Shortages and Rising Fuel Prices

School bus driver shortages and rising fuel costs are forcing districts nationwide to reevaluate their budgets. As the number of bus drivers declines across the country, transportation departments are working diligently to find solutions to this ongoing issue. 
In the webinar, Addressing Bus Driver Shortages and Rising Fuel Prices, three field experts discuss the impact of transportation-related challenges and the federal funds available for educational agencies: 

  • Billy Huish, Director of Transportation, Farmington Municipal Schools 
  • Dr. David Holbrook, Executive Director of Federal Programs and State Relationships, TransACT Communications 
  • Franc Kacaj, Account Representative, TransACT Communications 

Billy Huish also shares his experience responding to school bus driver shortages and the resources Farmington used to improve bus driver retention. 

Before diving into how you can consolidate routes to reduce fuel costs and retain drivers, it’s important to understand the history of bus drivers in the U.S. and the primary causes of a nationwide bus driver shortage.

 

Why Are There School Bus Driver Shortages? 

Millions of students are transported on school buses daily, nationwide. So, it’s essential for school bus drivers to be on time, prepared, and have everything they need to transport students safely. Unfortunately, this is not always guaranteed. Many things can go wrong in the process, including: 

  • Bus drivers calling out at the last minute 
  • Schools unprepared for sudden route changes 
  • Departments failing to provide materials for drivers 
  • Early morning bus breakdowns or delayed stops 

Bus driver shortages result from shortcomings on both ends. Educational agencies should offer incentive pay and provide all the necessary materials (e.g., maps, route schedules) for school bus drivers. And on the opposite end, bus drivers must understand budget limitations can severely restrict a school's ability to compensate their essential workers. 

In a 2022 nationwide survey of school transportation professionals, the top reasons for district bus driver shortages are as follows: 

  1. Issues recruiting new bus drivers (67.16% of participants agree) 
  2. Driver pay (40.30%) 
  3. Drivers retiring (37.31%) 
  4. COVID-19 concerns (32.84%) 
  5. Losing drivers to private industry (31.34%) 

"The ongoing national school bus driver shortage remains a high-priority issue, with 88% of survey respondents reporting that the driver shortage has constrained their school transportation operations."

— HopSkipDrive, 2022 State of School Transportation


The Top Two Reasons for District Bus Driver Shortages

The two main challenges restricting school transportation operations are recruiting new bus drivers and driver pay. With the cost of living rising across the U.S., it’s understandable that school bus drivers want a salary increase and are leaving to find higher-paying jobs in the private sector.

The sad reality is that transportation funds are commonly slashed first when making school budget cuts. And even if there is room in the budget, the money may go toward fixing bus maintenance issues before offering salary increases or bonuses to the drivers. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) has allocated $190 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds to help school transportation departments impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic (skip here to see ESSER fund deadlines).

The top constraint (recruiting new bus drivers) has been addressed by the USED in the ESSER Fund and GEER Fund FAQ document. One question asks if you can use ESSER funds to “address a shortage of school bus drivers due to the pandemic.” Put simply, yes, you can.

As stated in the FAQ document, “a local educational agency (LEA) may use ESSER or GEER funds for retention bonuses for current bus drivers, for salary increases, or for the cost of hiring additional bus drivers to address the shortage of bus drivers due to the pandemic.” 

So, you can use ESSER funds to combat bus driver shortages, but how exactly? What can your transportation department do with these newly allocated funds? Let’s look at a real-life example. 

 

Bus Driver Shortage Real-Life Example: Farmington Municipal Schools

Farming Municipal Schools is a public school district in Farmington, New Mexico. It is the 7th largest school district in the state, has 68 bus routes, and covers over 880 square miles in a large rural area. Farmington buses average 6,000 miles per day and over 1M miles annually. 

With so many buses and miles to cover, Farmington had to sit back and ask themselves: “are we really supplying or providing the best possible routes and stops?” According to Huish, Farmington was not offering the proper service to its students. So, they decided to make a change: implementing the Travel Tracker – Routing (TT-R) Software into their transportation department. 

Huish explains that Farmington ran the buses “the same way, same order, same everything,” but once they were able to access the TT-R dashboard, they could instantly see essential insights, such as: 

  • Bus overlaps 
  • More efficient stops for students 
  • Miles they could save 

This was manageable through the TT-R route consolidation feature, which allowed Farmington to reduce its fuel usage and save money by making its routes more efficient. 

"When you travel over a million miles within a school year, every little bit you can save or cut off is a big impact in your budget."

— Billy Huish, Director of Transportation at Farmington Municipal Schools

 

Consolidating Bus Routes to Keep Drivers Moving and Save on Fuel

Route consolidation is useful in the long- and short-term. While Transportation Directors can preplan consolidated routes at the beginning of the school year, staff can also use TT-R to quickly accommodate last-minute driver changes.

“A lot of the districts we talk to are severely short on drivers,” Kacaj explains. “They’re running into scenarios where almost every morning they’ll get a phone call from a driver or set of drivers saying that they are out.”

This causes the districts to scramble to make up for the routes that now don’t have a driver. Sometimes districts are fortunate enough to have a substitute bus driver. Other times, transportation directors must hop on a bus and drive or consolidate the routes missing a bus driver at the last minute.

"Route consolidation is hugely important and it’s only getting even more pivotal as fuel prices keep going up."

— Franc Kacaj, Account Representative at TransACT Communications

To get to the bottom of the issue, Kacaj asks Huish how Farmington uses the TT-R route consolidation feature for bus driver shortages.

“Say you have a driver call in,” Huish begins, “we can look at—say bus 53—that has called out for the day, and bus 53 serves our westside up on Harper Hill. We can look at that and say, this bus stop has X number of kids on at four or five stops, and we’re able to look at the other buses in the area to consolidate different bus stops or buses.” 

So, how long does it take someone to use Travel Tracker – Routing to consolidate routes and provide updated driver materials amid a driver shortage?  

According to Huish, “it takes very little time at all. By the time we have a driver in here, or if it’s one of the regular drivers that we’re consolidating, our routing coordinator has a map printed, route sheet description, student names; whatever is needed is done before the driver leaves.”   

The TT-R consolidation feature will also automatically reroute buses, provide details for student count, and relay route duration to school staff if there is a sudden delay in getting students to school on time.  

"It’s [route consolidation] is one of the easiest things that we do, and with a district our size with 69 buses, you would think I’ve got three or four routing coordinators working on this. One person does our routing coordination through this program."

— Billy Huish

 

Using Technology to Incentivize and Retain School Bus Drivers 

There are many key points throughout the webinar that expand upon bus driver shortages and how to incentivize drivers to improve retention. During the presentation, Kacaj asks Huish, “how do you respond to last-minute bus driver shortages or incentivize drivers and keep them on your staff?” 

“Prior to a routing program, bus drivers had to hand draw on a map, their route descriptions, and student rosters,” Huish explains. “With the TT-R program, we’re able to take that workload off our drivers. We print out their route and attendance sheets, then consolidate them into a book form that’s kept in their buses.”  

“If there’s an overnight change, we build the new route sheet right away.”

— Billy Huish

Travel Tracker – Routing has made it easy for drivers by eliminating the need for manual processes. Farmington provides its school bus drivers with all the materials needed, including:  

  • Route sheet with every stop 
  • Rosters listed by bus stops 
  • Student attendance sheet 
  • Route and stop times 

Educational agencies can improve school bus driver retention by eliminating manual paperwork, supplying all the necessary materials, and offering incentive pay. 

“We do retain most of our drivers. The word gets around what we do for our drivers and how we treat them. We’ve got enough drivers in training to cover our retirements.”

— Billy Huish

 

Communication Is Key for Staff, Bus Drivers, and Parents 

In the school bus transportation operation, communication is critical. There are unforeseen changes that happen daily, and some of them are unavoidable. But if there is clear communication between the transportation office staff and drivers, they know:  

  • What new students are joining their routes 
  • Why routes are being consolidated 
  • What’s happening with their bus and more 

Communication is essential—not just for the bus drivers—but for the parents as well to keep them updated. With Travel Tracker – Routing, transportation staff can send notifications for delays, emergencies, and last-minute changes to drivers and parents directly. This ensures that everyone involved receives the information they need instantly, saving time and energy.  

“With the TT-R program, we have the option to send an email to the driver when we do something new to that route. So, if we have to add a new bus stop or student that afternoon, we can notify the bus driver [and parents].”

— Billy Huish


How Funding Can Pay for Drivers, New Buses, and Upgrade Technology
 

So how can federal funding help schools adapt and overcome bus driver shortages? Dr. Holbrook explores some of the funding options available for transportation departments. 

“Generally, federal funding is supposed to be supplemental to state and local funding,” Dr. Holbrook clarifies. “So, in most situations, you can’t use federal funding for transportation-related needs. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were three laws passed to provide funding to K12 education. When you look at all three laws, it’s a total of over 190 billion dollars.”  

“These kinds of funding opportunities do not come around often, especially for transportation departments.”

— Franc Kacaj

Notably, ESSER funds are more flexible than other grants in how a district can use them. There are three funding laws pertaining to the available ESSER funds: 

  • Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act: $13.2 billion is available for K12 education in the ESSER Fund. You must commit to spending the allocated funds by September 30th, 2022. However, there’s a liquidation period of 120 days. So, you have until January 28th, 2023, to spend the money on a transportation-related need.  
  • Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act: $54.3 billion for the ESSER II Fund. You must commit to spending the money by September 30th, 2023, then actually spend the money by January 28th, 2024. 
  • American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act: $122 billion for the ARP ESSER III Fund. You have until September 30th, 2024, to commit to spending the available funds. And by January 28th, 2025, you must actually spend that funding.
     

Suppose a district has "extenuating circumstances" that prohibit it from spending any of the three pots of ESSER funds within the liquidation period. In that case, it can request an extension of the liquidation period by submitting a waiver request to the USED. Right now, USED is granting these extensions for construction and facilities-related expenses without much questioning. However, for a transportation-related extension request, the documentation that the district is experiencing "extenuating circumstances" will need to be quite rigorous. 

It’s also important to note that these ESSER funds are not recurring; they’re one-time funds. So, once these funds run out, they will not be replaced. Furthermore, these funds must be used to address an impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“It’s allowable to use these COVID-19 ESSER funds—this 190 billion dollars—on transportation and bus routing software.”

— Dr. David Holbrook

 

Using ESSER Funds to Hire, Incentivize, and Train School Bus Drivers 

To address the issue of bus driver shortages, the U.S. Department of Education has released guidance on how to use ESSER funds to provide incentives for school bus drivers, like retention bonuses or salary increases.  

As stated earlier, these are one-time funds. So, if you use the funding to hire additional bus drivers, ensure that the bus drivers know they’re a temporary contract or examine your budget to figure out how to cover these recurring costs after the ESSER funds run out. 

Additionally, you can use the ESSER funds for driver recruitment and pay for the cost of the training needed to get a commercial driver’s license for new bus drivers. 

 

Upgrade Technology for Routing, Trips, and Facilities  

Travel Tracker – Routing is a cloud-based solution that handles the entire route management process, from the initial request, through funding approvals, bus and driver scheduling, invoicing, and reporting.  

The TT-R Tables are GPS enabled and have many useful features, including: 

  • Audio-visual step-by-step directions 
  • Stop validation for students 
  • Barcode scanning 
  • Parent notifications 
  • Track route times 


With
Travel Tracker – Routing, you can provide better service to families, save time and money on modern maps, and reduce manual approaches to route planning, field trips, and bus maintenance. 

View a recorded demonstration now or schedule a demonstration with a Travel Tracker Routing team member to learn how transportation departments can consolidate routes and quickly respond to school bus driver shortages.

 

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