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Bus driver shortage forces Lake Travis ISD to cut routes

A yellow school bus is in traffic on a highway.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT News
A state law passed in 2017 requires school districts to buy buses with lap and shoulder seat belts.

School districts in Central Texas and throughout the country are struggling to hire bus drivers. While the labor shortage is not new, it is forcing some districts to stretch resources or make tough decisions for the upcoming school year. One of those districts isLake Travis Independent School District, which has 11 campuses and nearly 12,000 students.

Lake Travis ISD’s Assistant Superintendent for Operations Brad Bailey said that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district needed 85 bus drivers to be fully staffed. Right now, the district has 20 to 25 drivers. The new school year begins next Tuesday.

“So, it’s a big push right now to try to get as many drivers as we can to try to make up that ground,” Bailey said. “We would like to have at least 30 more [drivers] for sure.”

As a result of the bus driver shortage, Lake Travis ISD is going to have to significantly reduce the bus service it provides to families. The district announced Tuesday that it will not provide bus service to students who live within a 2 mile radius of their campus unless they receive special education services.

Students who live outside of the 2 mile radius will be able to take the bus on a rotating schedule, meaning the service will be provided every other week. Lake Travis ISD notes that households with multiple students may not be on the same bus schedule. The schedules will be posted on the Lake Travis ISD Transportation Department webpage Wednesday.

Bailey said the district does not want to be forced to reduce services.

“We hate doing it because we want to transport every child," he said. "Not being able to provide that service is not an easy decision to make, and we feel for the parents."

Bailey said this has been one of the worst years for hiring in the 31 years he has worked in education. He said Lake Travis ISD has lost bus drivers to other professions and school districts that are closer to where they live.

The district recently raised the starting pay for bus drivers to $23 per hour in an effort to recruit more employees. But Bailey said it would also help if the government approved an abbreviated training program that maintained safety standards while helping drivers get the necessary certifications more quickly.

“Because when they go in and they start the process, it may take up to a month and a half, two months, to get fully certified, and they’re waiting around,” he said.

Pflugerville ISD is another Central Texas district facing dozens of openings ahead of the new school year. The district has about 60 bus driver vacancies.

At a job fair last month, Pflugerville ISD officials said they were losing drivers to other districts as well as to an Amazon fulfillment center that opened in the area. Mayra Kyler, the operations manager for the district's transportation department, was trying to recruit new drivers. She said her colleagues in the transportation department who have a CDL are prepared to fill-in to drive routes.

“The last thing that we want to do is not provide transportation because we do not have enough people, so we are making it happen,” she said. “Whatever we have to do, we are going to make it happen.”

Bailey said he hopes Lake Travis ISD will be able to add more bus drivers during the school year to expand service again.

“We need everyone to work together and just be patient with us,” Bailey said. “I know we’ve been saying that for the last couple years, but we are doing everything possible to help provide transportation for their children.”

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Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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