Sweet Home school district bus-driver numbers improve

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

With September just around the corner, the Sweet Home School District is down one permanent bus driver — an improvement over 2021-22, when its transportation department was down three for most of the school year.

A permanent driver will arrive shortly after classes reconvene, according to SHSD Director of Transportation Darel Bidwell, bringing the department to full capacity. Two, in fact, are currently undergoing training.

“I’m sitting at ‘not a struggle,’ whereas last year we were sitting at a struggle on the word go,” he said. “We’re doing better than we have been. We’re definitely ahead of where we were last year.”

He attributes the change to increased interest.

“I looked and looked, and I was hoping that people would fall in my lap,” Bidwell said. “We handed out flyers. But the true deal is we’ve had people come to our district looking for positions, which helped.” That was something he didn’t expect.

At the beginning of the school year, the department will extend a route to cover one without an operator. (Two part-time subs are also available on certain schedules.) Bidwell would like to have 15 permanent drivers on all 15 routes, with a couple of extra drivers as well.

“I would like to put permanent people in there, so I can say, ‘This is your route, and you’ve been hired for this particular route,’” he said. “I don’t have that yet, but I’m getting there.”

Last year, the transportation department faced the most personnel struggles Bidwell could recall in his 18 years with the district. He sometimes drove himself, as did as the department’s dispatcher and two mechanics. As a result, district office staff members occasionally covered transportation department duties, handling the radio system and phone calls.

“It was bleak,” he said. “There was nobody on the hook for training. I didn’t see any training in sight. We had some people that were getting ready to retire on us. Being down that far with drivers, we knew that the dispatcher and my mechanics were going to be driving a lot trying to keep this office open with just one of us.”

Nevertheless, Bidwell’s department got the job done.

“We succeeded,” he said. “We didn’t cancel a route. We made sure everything went. Some might have been a little bit late, but we succeeded.”

If current trends hold, this year shouldn’t be quite as unusual.

“I’m sitting so much better this year,” Bidwell said. “I’m not down any routes, really, because it can be easily covered.”

Still, things aren’t quite back to normal. And the last few years have been especially unusual, thanks to the pandemic, which, predictably, resulted in declining personnel numbers nationwide.

“I wish I could say it was different for us,” Bidwell said. “But we’re on a national shortage. It’s not just us. But Sweet Home has been sitting a lot better than some of the places around us. We sat better than even Lebanon did. I love everybody the same, and unfortunately, they were further down than we were last year. I’m hoping that everybody is coming up now. I’m just thankful for what I’ve got this year. Everybody right now is on the big push.

“We started seeing the harder decline just around the COVID time,” he continued. “That’s when it really got worrisome. Once the mandates came out, a lot of people decided that that just wasn’t the thing to do anymore. I don’t think they wanted to fill out their exemptions if they didn’t want to get a booster. There is a multitude of reasons, I think, unfortunately.”

In recent years, a few potential drivers haven’t been able to meet Oregon Department of Education requirements, some of which involve guidelines regarding substances.

“They’ve accepted marijuana on a state level, but federally that is not acceptable,” he said. “So, you cannot be under the influence of any marijuana to drive a school bus, because we’re federal. And there’s a lot of people who use marijuana now.”

Also, at an average of four hours a day, the role may not have as many hours as some people would like. But, Bidwell said, “If you’re a full-time driver, you’re looking at trips, which helps subsidize some of the extra hours.”

Other applicants might want a higher paying job. “They don’t think there’s enough money involved,” Bidwell said. “Minus the fact that you have an open schedule, and we do really well with our pay.”

There are perks, however, like a unique schedule.

“It’s such a forgiving shift, so it’s ideal for folks that are looking for a split shift,” Bidwell said. “It helps families. ‘My kids are going to school; let’s drive a bus. Then my kids are getting out of school; let’s drive a bus and help that schedule out.’ You get to be free in the middle of the day and get your chores or running-around done.

“This district is really about family and community. Let’s say the driver is for Hawthorne and their kid rides Holley. Their kid could ride on the Holley bus until he gets in and meet mom or dad at the bus garage when they get done. We can keep the kid on a bus for them to assist that. It’s a neat deal to be able to help our staff.”

At full freight, the transportation staff consists of 25 employees in total, including mechanics, secretaries, dispatcher, trainer and route drivers who drive somewhere between 26 to 28 district school buses.

And, with added staffing since school let out in June, the wheels on the bus will continue to go round and round this fall.