Northland school districts facing bus driver shortage

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Big yellow school buses will soon be gassing up and getting ready to take kids to school. But finding people to drive those buses is proving a challenge for some Northland districts.

"I look at finding a bus driver like finding Bigfoot or a unicorn. What are the chances?" Nathan Berg said.

Berg is the director of transportation for Willow River Schools but he might be picking up a full-time bus route himself this fall.

"We have six routes total, and I’m three drivers short," he said. "So our superintendent is jumping in. He’s taking on a route. We’ve got a para that was a driver that is gracious enough to do more."

And they might have to pull in other paraprofessionals or teachers to drive some of the van routes.

Kay Cornelius runs the transportation departments for St. Louis County Schools and the Mountain Iron-Buhl district.

"This is the first year that I’ve been this short. Normally, I can start school and I’m doing OK," she said.

Cornelius said between the two districts she works for, there are about a dozen open positions now.

"It’s creative routing right now. It’s a lot of working and seeing where can I divide routes, how can I make it work that way," Cornelius said. "So yeah, it’s a very challenging year."

She’s wrapped a van with an ad, trying to garner interest. They’ve also put ads in the newspaper, bought spots on the radio, and are offering current employees incentives if they bring in new drivers. Plus, there are sign-on bonuses for new employees.

Willow River has also put ads in the paper and on social media to attract candidates. But Berg says they don’t have the budget other districts do.

"You drive anywhere, any town that has buses, and you see a bus parking out with a banner, ‘Bus Drivers Wanted.’ The bigger districts can offer $1,500, $2,000, $3,000. But when you start getting to a smaller district, we can’t pack that punch," he said.

With the anticipated shortage, Berg doesn’t think he’ll be able to run practice buses between Moose Lake and Willow River or transport kids to games and activities.

"First thing is we’ve got to get the kids to and from," Berg said. "The extracurricular is what’s kind of the … frosting. So if we can do that, we want to provide all the frosting we can."

Cornelius said they are going to make sports transportation work at St. Louis County and MIB, even if they have to contract out some routes.

"We are known for a district that will get it done and figure it out," she said. "We’re already routing for our fall sports."

Both transportation directors say right now, it’s all about creative routing, community support, and reminders about why this job is so important.

"Our precious cargo rides here," Berg said, pointing at a school bus. "This is the safest form of transportation. The safest."

"School bus drivers really are the face of the district early in the morning because you see the student when they get on and have a visit and build a relationship, so I think that’s really important," Cornelius said.

Commercial Driver’s Licenses are required to drive a school bus. But the districts will help people walk through the process and provide free behind-the-wheel training.

To apply at Willow River, click here. To apply at St. Louis County Schools, click here.