Education

Anchorage’s school bus driver shortage: How it unfolded and what we know so far

school bus driver training, Anchorage School District

The Anchorage School District is in the middle of a severe bus driver shortage, which has left more than 12,000 students without service for weeks.

But by the end of the first full week of school, district officials said they were on the way to being fully staffed with drivers by the beginning of October, given current numbers of people in the training and hiring process.

In the meantime, they also announced they would get some temporary support from the military.

While the Alaska National Guard said it couldn’t help with the issue due to legal constraints, active duty airmen with the 673rd Logistics Readiness Squadron will take students on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to school for the next month and a half, the district said Friday. That will free up four existing drivers to take up four routes in other parts of the district.

Here’s what we know about the bus driver shortage so far.

Which students are receiving bus service?

This week, 8,139 students were receiving bus service while 12,171 were not, according to ASD spokesperson Lisa Miller.

That reflects the way the school district chose to split up bus service suspensions. Bus routes were divided into three groups, and the district is providing school bus service to one group for three weeks before rotating to the next group. That means each group is set to go without bus service for six weeks between service periods.

The first cohort of students receiving bus service, from the first day of school through Sept. 9, is concentrated mostly in the northeast and part of the northwest section of the district. The second cohort, which will get bus service from Sept. 12 to 30, includes routes in the northwest and southeast areas of the district. And the third cohort, which will have bus service for three weeks starting Oct. 3, is in the south side of the district as well as Eagle River and Chugiak.

The district also condensed some routes, which means some students must walk farther to their stops.

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When and how did the bus driver issues begin?

Almost all of the school district’s drivers are off during the summer, save for a few who drive summer school routes, said Rob Holland, acting chief operating officer for ASD.

“We don’t know who’s coming back until very late in the summer, into late July or early August,” Holland said in an interview Friday. “That’s normal. That’s every year.”

The district was already down some drivers and needed to rotate bus service through some lower-ridership routes at the end of last school year.

At the time, they had planned to thin out bus stops when school resumed this fall, which the district thought they would have enough drivers for.

Then the district began to lose more drivers by midsummer, Holland said. By July 20, Holland said, the district was getting concerned it would need to do partial bus service suspensions, in addition to thinning stops. They didn’t set it up then, he said, because they knew a lot of drivers weren’t due back yet.

There were also new recruits and hires whom the district was still evaluating, he said. Plus, it takes several days to come up with those changes to bus service given the district’s current software program.

“If we had communicated it out before the first week of August, we were very much concerned that we risked having to then change that after the first week of August, and then scuttle it and supplant it with a whole different cohort and really throw a monkey wrench into this,” Holland said.

By July 28, the district decided with certainty that it would be suspending some bus routes, Holland said.

Then between Aug. 1 and 5, ASD lost an additional 42 drivers, Holland said. Out of that group, which consisted of people who were working district drivers at the end of last school year, 18 decided to stay in the tourism industry, 10 moved out of state, seven took other driving jobs and seven never called back, he said.

“There was no historical precedent for this type of drop,” Holland said.

During that week, the district began working on the current suspension plan, he said.

The district alerted families and the public of the bus driver shortage issue on Aug. 4, noting that bus service suspensions could happen. The following week, on Aug. 10, district officials unveiled their route suspension model, and on Aug. 12 provided families with information about when their routes would have service.

How much is the district paying bus drivers?

The district is paying drivers $20.68, according to the job posting. Dallas-based Reliant Transportation, which is contracted to provide service for two-thirds of the district’s bus routes this year, is paying $22 an hour for drivers.

Reliant also has a $2,400 sign-on and referral bonus, according to Jeff Womack, a spokesman for the company. The school district is also paying drivers up to $2,500 in the first semester.

How long will the rotating bus service suspensions last?

The Anchorage School District has yet to give a concrete day for when they plan to go back to regular busing. District leadership has characterized the schedule as “temporary,” and on Friday they said they’re “on track to be fully staffed between now and October.”

How many drivers does the district still need?

The district had 66 vacancies by Friday, according to superintendent Jharrett Bryantt. He said 42 drivers have been hired and should start between now and late September, however. An additional 35 people were in the middle of applicant vetting and have a “strong possibility of becoming drivers for ASD.”

“What that means is that we’re within arm’s reach of our goal to be fully staffed by October,” Bryantt said in an interview.

Still, the district is asking for more recruits.

“We still have an urgent need for bus drivers,” Bryantt said. “Because while we do have a lot of folks in the applicant process, they may not all make it to the finish line. So please, please, please apply to be a bus driver.”

What routes have been reinstated?

So far, ASD has reinstated bus routes on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, given that the 400 students who would usually attend Ursa Major Elementary, a walking school on base, now have to go somewhere else due to the building’s seismic issues.

Those elementary school routes take students to Bartlett High, West High, Bettye Davis East High, Central Middle School and Begich Middle School. The district also reestablished two routes that go to Klatt Elementary and South High.

How is the driver shortage affecting student absences?

The Anchorage School District did not see a major increase in absences on the first week of school, according to spokesperson Miller. Overall, 93% of students were in attendance, compared to the 90% who were in attendance during the first week last school year.

Miller said that individual schools will work with students if they cannot find a way to get to school, and that those absences will be excused. Beyond that, if there’s a long period where the student can’t get to school, then the school will start looking at online options too.

Are other school districts dealing with bus driver shortages?

Yes. Nationwide, 86% of school district administrators who responded to a July survey from the outlet EdWeek said they didn’t have enough people to drive buses.

In Southcentral Alaska, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District is also dealing with a driver shortage. They’re using a different system, though, in which bus cancellations rotate through different geographic areas one day every week.

The Anchorage School District had only enough drivers to cover service for one-third of eligible riders, Holland said. The concern over using something like a day-on-day-off model in as large a district as Anchorage is that it would be confusing and easy to forget, he said. That’s part of the reason why ASD chose to group students as they did.

[Mat-Su school district’s contractor moves past ‘unacceptable’ start short on drivers — and buses]

Why can’t the National Guard assist with ASD’s driver shortage?

Last week, the Alaska National Guard said that it couldn’t help with the bus driver shortage because of limitations under state law. The Guard made the announcement after it consulted with the Alaska Department of Law.

Since the shortage was not caused by a natural disaster, civil unrest or a disease, it’s not within the allowable reasons for National Guard deployment in Alaska, according to Patty Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Department of Law.

“Vacant transportation positions — as important as they are to a smoothly functioning society and economy — also don’t fall within the definition of catastrophe, that is the loss of life, property, and other substantial irreparable harm,” Sullivan wrote in an email this week.

What are some future solutions?

“I suspect that there are structural inefficiencies with the way that school busing works in ASD,” Bryantt said.

The district has set up a third-party audit for help with future bus route planning, he said. They’re looking at changes to start and stop times, or route consolidation, he said.

“It‘ll take numerous weeks, if not months,” Bryantt said. “But we have that time because any long-term changes will require community input, board input, and most likely wouldn’t go into effect until next school year.”

The Daily News’ Zaz Hollander contributed reporting.

Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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