Peninsula School District holds bus driver hiring event

After a shortage of bus drivers due to the pandemic, the Peninsula School District held a recruitment event for those who may be interested in driving those big yellow buses.

Only a couple of potential new hires showed up to the event Friday, where they were able to test drive a bus in the Purdy Elementary parking lot.

“The Peninsula School District, the state and the nation is experiencing a school bus driver shortage,” Transportation Director Dawnett Wright told The Gateway. “Many school districts throughout the state have had to reduce routes by as much as 30 percent. As with other districts in the area, we have felt the same pinch.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, employees within the district needed to be more cautious of their health and their family’s health. Wright said.

When students and staff began to return to school, the district had drivers that did not return with them.

“We were facing a shortage prior to the pandemic but it is far worse now. The school district lost 37 school bus drivers in the last three years and have had to cut 13 percent of our daily routes,” Wright said.

Peninsula School District bus driver Kristie Matthews, left, trains Roland Checketts on how to drive a school bus at a bus driver hiring event hosted by the district in the parking lot behind Purdy Elementary in Key Peninsula, Wash. on August 26, 2022. Cheyenne Boone Cheyenne Boone/The News Tribune

Drivers chose to leave during the pandemic due to a variety of reasons. Many were already of retirement age and with COVID-19 exposure concerns they chose to stay home.

These loses have not just impacted the way students get to and from school during regular hours. They also made the district struggle to provide support for extra things like activities and sports.

“We know that is imperative in keeping our kids engaged in school,” Wright said.

For now, the district’s routes and bus stops are the same or similar to the previous school year.

Wright said it is possible to add bus stops back into the flow of their routes, with a sufficient amount of substitute drivers to cover daily routes. The district hopes to hire about 20 new drivers.

Currently the district has 63 contracted drivers, and a small number of substitute bus drivers whose availability varies, Wright said. Out of the 20 they hope to hire, 10 of them would cover sports trips and other school operations outside of the school-to-home routes.

“Most school districts in Washington are in the same small boat. We are in the same situation as most, which is why PSD scaled its transportation operations,” Wright said.

‘I knew I wanted to help.’

A team of driver trainers at the Friday event spoke about the job and what kind of training is involved.

“We provide paid training to become a school bus driver for our district. The training encompasses the classroom and behind the wheel training and takes between 40-80 hours,” Wright said.

The event was open to all licensed drivers who are interested. However, official school bus drivers do need to hold a class B commercial driver’s license with a school bus endorsement, passenger endorsement, and an air brake endorsement.

One of the participants used to drive charter buses.

“I’m at a point where I have some flexibility and schedule in the mornings,” Roland Checketts told The Gateway. “My kids are students in the district. When I heard there was a shortage, I knew I wanted to help.

Torrey Hansen said she came to the event because driving runs in her family. Her father, Mike Riegle is a substitute driver for the district and her mother, Rebecca Riegle is a full time driver.

“Both my parents are drivers. When I got to drive the bus today it was awesome. Way easier than I thought it was going to be,” Hansen told The Gateway.

The 2022-2023 salary schedule starts a transportation driver at $25.67 an hour. Drivers can earn over $30 an hour based on experience and seniority. Substitute drivers can earn $23.10 to $25.41 an hour.

The district hopes to hold another recruiting event soon.

Those who want more information can call the PSD transportation office at 253-530-3900.