SCV school district transportation staff work hard amid nationwide shortage of qualified drivers
The Santa Clarita Valley is wide and has a myriad of schools. Many residents tout the schools for being some of the best in Los Angeles County for their dedication to students and creating welcoming environments — and for many students that starts on the bus.
“Our bus drivers are always kind, happy people, and putting a smile on children’s faces,” said Irene Boden, Castaic Union School District assistant superintendent of business and administrative services, and who also oversees transportation. “They’re the last people they see in the day, and really that first point of contact for children and families out there.”
According to Boden, and officials from the other elementary school districts, bus drivers are an important piece of their structure. They shared the same sentiment that bus drivers “set the tone for the day” for many of their students.
Transportation is an important service that school districts provide to students, according to district officials. But the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing issues in education such as affecting enrollment, budgets, staffing and transportation.
In transportation, there is a growing need for bus drivers, according to district officials.
“It’s a nationwide issue. We’re feeling it in California,” Boden said. “It comes down to the fact that we have these increased staffing demands.”
Some employees have either retired, some moved away, and the supply of fully qualified candidates is not there, she added. In order to become a school bus driver in California, a person must meet a handful of requirements, which include a bus driver certificate, a class B license with a passenger endorsement, and must pass a written and performance exam.
“It’s hard to find those individuals who can meet the requirements for this position,” Boden said. “You can’t really lower the standards because they’re driving our kids.”
Danielle Cuevas, transportation manager and driver for Sulphur Springs Union School District, said her department does a great job mapping out routes and ensuring the transportation of their students. But Cuevas also echoed the same concern that “the bigger issue across the nation is just the lack of qualified drivers.”
“When we need to hire a driver, it can be very difficult to find a qualified driver,” Cuevas said. “We have had postings before go six months or longer without getting an application.”
As transportation departments struggle to find additional drivers, current employees end up working harder to ensure their duties are met and continue to provide transportation services for students.
Bus drivers like Cuevas and Arlene Alcaraz, interim foreperson for the Castaic district transportation department, agree that it’s just reality.
“Sometimes we have our bus drivers carrying students in wheelchairs, so we have to load them in,” Alcaraz said. “They’re on a schedule where their aide needs to feed them or attend to them. We need to make it from point A to point B as quickly and safely as possible.”
“We’re short-staffed and sometimes we run a couple of minutes late to the schools because we’re having to combine certain students into the best possible scenario to get them to the school better.”
But even against these challenges, they both are appreciative of their transportation team.
“We have a great department that does a great job of mapping out the routes, ensuring that we are transporting our students within our time frames,” Cuevas said.
They also shared similar sentiments that their districts are doing everything to support them and their teams.
“I believe our district is totally behind us,” Alcaraz said. “They’re trying to the best they can.”
Castaic and the Sulphur Springs district employ bus drivers, whereas Saugus Union School District and Newhall School District contract with Storer Transportation. The company provides those districts with bus drivers.
The Castaic and Sulphur Springs districts offer transportation services to all students. The Saugus district only provides transportation to special education students, who have it written in their individualized education program.
District officials from Newhall declined to comment on this story.
Most recently, the Castaic district “squared” its salary schedule, within the last year, to make it more equitable across the board, according to Boden. The Castaic district also increased the hours available for employees to work to eight hours instead of just six standard hours, she added.
She’s also worked alongside Director of Facilities John Gamlowski to authorize a new radio system for buses.
Joshua Randall, assistant superintendent of business services for the Sulphur Springs district, said they are working to approve a bus driving signing bonus, which will help make wages more competitive and entice qualified drivers to apply.
Randall added they are waiting for feedback and approval from their California School Employees Assocation chapter before bringing it to the board of trustees.
The Sulphur Springs district board of trustees recently approved a partnership with the William S. Hart Union High School District to provide transportation for field trips.
“What we found is our drivers and our buses, and our routes, between the morning and afternoon rounds, there’s a limited amount of time,” Randall said. “Luckily, we were able to partner with the Hart district for those field trips that going go further outside the valley and take a longer amount of time.”
Nick Heinlein, assistant superintendent of business for the Saugus district, said they work with Storer to find possible bus drivers. But those bus drivers are not district employees, they are Storer employees.
He said Storer offers fuel allowances and transportation stipends for its employees to help keep them working and offset expenses if they commute from outside the SCV.
Peter Gaytan, director of maintenance, operations, transportation and facilities, has worked for the Saugus district for 16 years. He’s worked his way up into the position he now holds.
“My relationship is great [with the district]. It’s a family environment. My goal is to provide a culture of gratitude for the employees, creating a positive environment for them,” Gaytan said.
Gaytan, Cuevas and Alcaraz echoed a similar message: They need a lending hand at this moment.
Each district has different levels of needs in terms of staffing for transportation, and they hope qualified drivers will apply and join them to serve students.
“I’ve been a driver for 16 years,” Alcaraz said. “I still have friendships with the families when I first started working here. I want to bring smiles to our families and let them know that we’re always going to be here.”