education

With Jefferson County bus driver shortage at peak, student athletes miss hours of classtime

District needs more than 40 drivers to meet demand

Posted 11/12/19
What happens when there’s a school bus driver shortage? A chain reaction, said Autumn Sereno, assistant principal and athletic coach at Lakewood’s Green Mountain High School. The chain of events …

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education

With Jefferson County bus driver shortage at peak, student athletes miss hours of classtime

District needs more than 40 drivers to meet demand

Posted

What happens when there’s a school bus driver shortage? A chain reaction, said Autumn Sereno, assistant principal and athletic coach at Lakewood’s Green Mountain High School.

The chain of events begins every time a school like Green Mountain has an after-school event. On game days, student athletes are dismissed early — as early as 12:30 p.m. some days at Green Mountain — so drivers can take them to games before returning for the afternoon route.

By the time athletes arrive at the rival high school, their game could still be hours away; coaches must work with the school to find space for visiting students to wait out the clock.

But there isn’t always enough space for the visiting team — just recently, Sereno said, athletes playing a Douglas County school stayed in the locker rooms at the local football stadium in Parker until their game started hours later.

“We’re talking a couple hours that they’re getting pulled out of classes,” Sereno said. “I know the district is doing everything it can do. To me, it’s a question of how are we going to fix this?”

Dozens of drivers short

Jeffco is facing one of the longest-lasting, if not the longest-lasting, bus driver shortage in its history, said Greg Jackson, executive director of transportation.

The district currently has 245 active drivers, short of what the district needs by more than 40 drivers. The shortage sparked an announcement from Jackson in September asking schools to dismiss student athletes early when possible or hire charter buses.

“There’s a commercial driver shortage that’s not just a Jeffco thing; it’s a national situation,” he said. “We’re competing with ourselves, other school districts and the private sector. A lot of drivers who would come are going other places because of the compensation.”

The shortage extends across a number of industries, with RTD especially feeling the effects. With a lack of commercial drivers to operate buses and light rails, the transportation district is planning to make temporary service cuts, said RTD board member Shelley Cook.

Jeffco started seeing a declining number of available drivers around 2014, at a time when its number of bus routes was growing. In less than a decade, Jeffco has increased from 65 to 87 routes.

The shortage poses a difficulty for drivers like Donna Guerrero, who became a bus driver in Jeffco three years ago, having first worked as a paraprofessional, or an educational aide, in the district.

“It’s difficult because you’re used to your route,” but driver’s routes often get changed to accommodate school events or employee sick days, she said.

They then find themselves in unknown territory, often working overtime hours as they log extra miles, she said.

In the face of a problem the district cannot control, Jackson said, “on the athletics side, it’s not ideal, but we’re doing the best we can.”

He emphasized that any time the district provides early transportation to an after-school activity, it first calls the school to ensure that student athletes can be released early that day. The district aims to avoid early dismissals before 1:30 p.m., with the vast majority taking place between 1:30 and 2 o’clock, he said.

‘Get a little bit creative’

Over at Arvada High School, student athletes like senior Suezana Gonzales, 17, are used to getting out of class more than an hour early. Gonzales, who plays volleyball and is on the pom squad, said she and her teammates have a 1:30 p.m. dismissal once or twice a week.

What comes after is hours of waiting, with third-level volleyball games typically starting around 4 o’clock and varsity games beginning around 6.

Though students usually have a place to wait at schools they visit, the Wi-Fi connection can rarely support visiting students, in Gonzales’s experience. As such, she and her friends cannot always complete their homework while waiting.

“We usually just sat there and watched the other games. I’d rather have been doing my homework,” she said.

But Gonzales added that she’s learned how to overcome missed class time and maintain her 3.0-plus GPA. What particularly helps are study halls for student athletes, she said. Arvada High holds the study halls on Tuesday and Thursday mornings before school.

“The district is in a hard spot, yet they’re really trying to accommodate and make it work for us,” said Arvada High athletic director Dan Quaratino. “It’s like an athletic team; we’re all working for the greater good. You’ve just got to get a little bit creative.”

One creative solution: about half of Arvada High’s coaches have earned certification to drive students to and from games, using their own vehicles or one of the school’s two activity vans, he said.

Another solution comes in the form of charter buses, with the district recommending schools work with district-approved charter bus companies to arrange transportation.

But both Jackson and Sereno acknowledged that this fix isn’t perfect. In Sereno’s experience, charter buses are too costly for the school’s athletic budget, she said.

Dawn Roberts, assistant to the district’s executive athletic director, said the cost to charter may be more than three times the cost of a district bus. Last year, a team that could not get a district bus to a game in Aurora had to charter a bus for $375, as opposed to the $112.75 a district bus would cost, she said.

District leaders have also done their part to combat the shortage, meeting with a consultant over the summer to reorganize routes, Jackson said. The summer planning reduced the estimated number of driver vacancies, which was around 65, to a number in the low forties.

However, new wrenches are always thrown into the plan, he said. For example, additional health requirements — such as restrictions against driving with a pacemaker or sleep apnea diagnosis — introduced in the past four years have caused the district to lose some drivers. Other potential drivers are disqualified by drug tests, with the legalization of marijuana significantly narrowing the pool of potential employees, Jackson said.

“It’s sad to see our economy has to take a dip to grow drivers, versus a school bus driver being something people would like to do,” he said.

Even so, one visit to the high-volume, high-morale break room at the district’s central bus terminal on Quail Street, and it’s easy to see that for some, being a bus driver is as fun a job as any.

“I kind of knew what I was getting myself into. I like kids and I don’t mind driving,” Guerrero said. And, even when things get hectic, she knows her coworkers will assist where they can: “It is stressful, but we help each other out.”

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