Bus driver shortage causes school systems to find new ways to recruit, retain staff

East Tennessee school systems including Blount, Knox, Jefferson and Sevier, face bus driver shortages, impacting how thousands of kids get to and from school.
East Tennessee bus driver shortages are affecting how children get to school. In some cases, teachers are stepping in behind the wheel.
Published: Nov. 10, 2021 at 9:32 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 10, 2021 at 9:33 PM EST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - East Tennessee school systems including Blount, Knox, Jefferson and Sevier, face bus driver shortages, impacting how thousands of kids get to and from school.

“It’s challenging for sure,” said Kevin Wilner, Transportation Coordinator for Blount County Schools.

Assistant Superintendent of Student Services for Sevier County Board of Education, Tony Ogle, agreed.

“We have always struggled for bus drivers,” said Ogle.

Drivers and substitute drivers are needed urgently.

“We’re experiencing an uptick in the number of openings,” said Shane Johnston, Director of Schools for Jefferson County.

“It’s been worse this year than it has for us in the past,” explained Ryan Dillingham, Director of Transportation for Knox County Schools.

He said he wasn’t sure why there’s a shortage and didn’t want to speculate.

Others said minimal compensation, lack of health benefits, students’ behavior and even traffic all make it tougher to get new drivers on the job.

“COVID certainly put a dent in it, but even before that, it was hard to get drivers,” said Wilner.

There’s no one single answer, nor solution.

“It seems like the expectations of bus drivers continue to increase,” Dillingham explained. “What 20 years ago, what you were supposed to do if you were a bus driver and then today what you’re supposed to do if you’re a bus driver, there’s been a lot that’s been added to their plate.”

In Knox County the school system was 40 drivers short as of Wednesday, which was nearly 12 percent of its work force. Dillingham told WVLT News that shortage means changes, including different plans for nearly every route.

Finding a spare driver or bus is the first option. Another is finding a bus that can take two trips or dividing up routes. He said the option they use depends on the day.

“We’ve lost 20 percent of our drivers over the past two years and that necessitates having to double up the routes,” said Wilner.

This can cause drivers to run a route twice or have busses at or near capacity.

But there are solutions.

“We’re just try to recruit all the time, I mean that’s a year round process,” Johnston said.

Sevier County Schools has published ads in its local newspaper and placed some of their school busses in prominent places around Sevier County with “Bus Drivers Needed” signs.

Another solution, specifically for Knox County Schools, is a free training program for Transportation U.

Leaders started this a few years ago and have full-time instructors to teach anyone with no experience in driving a commercial vehicle.

Over the course of a month, they get licensed with all the certifications needed to drive a school bus. This fall they had full classes for the last four months and brought on 45 new drivers.

Some teachers drive busses in Jefferson County as well.

In both Jefferson and Sevier Counties, they’re offering bonuses if drivers have a semester of perfect attendance.

Long term thought, Wilner thinks in the next few years, there may be bus stop consolidation where kids are meeting at a common location instead of at the end of their driveway.

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