In some school districts, a persistent school bus driver shortage has other staff members, such as mechanics and teaching assistants, getting behind the wheel to help out, but one school principal is going above and beyond.
Dan Zylstra, elementary principal and occasional school bus driver at West Central School Corp. in Francesville, Indiana, is studying school bus driver staffing and shortage for his doctorate degree in education. His dissertation will examine how small, rural public school districts use compensation and non-wage factors to recruit and retain Class B CDL bus drivers.
Working for that very type of district, with about 800 students from grades K through 12 and serving about half of Pulaski County, Zylstra is also looking at the challenges involved in recruiting and retention. Those include having a significantly smaller worker pool than an urban or suburban school district; fewer people in that pool living close to the district and able to easily commute; and serving a larger area.
“That might affect the way you structure your compensation and wages,” he explained.
Zylstra landed on this topic for his doctorate because his district finds itself short of drivers on a regular basis. Even if only a few have to take a day off, there is a very shallow substitute pool to draw from. Then, if some substitute drivers are unable to work, the district can quickly run out of drivers, he said.
Part of the solution to the shortage is Zylstra himself, who has a CDL and drives a few times a month to fill the gap when there are no substitute drivers available.
Zylstra has worked toward his doctorate for the last couple years at Indiana University and recently completed coursework in preparation for his dissertation. He hopes his knowledge of how districts meet their driver staffing needs will help others obtain and keep drivers more efficiently.
“Buses are essential to a school’s operations, but [the work to] get drivers sucks up a lot of an administrator’s time,” Zylstra said. “If we can tackle that staffing issue based on the knowledge of other districts, then we will all be better off.”
Besides, he added, school administrators like him preach lifelong learning, so they should practice it, too.
So far, he has been struck by how little academic research there is on school bus driver staffing and information about how many school bus drivers districts have, particularly compared to data on teachers.
“You’ll find average pay, age, benefits, etc., and pages of scholarly research about how to attract quality teachers for hard-to-teach areas, rural schools, urban schools,” he said.
However, when it comes to school transportation, there is very little formal research.
“I have found no exhaustive studies on school bus driver statistics,” Zylstra added.
As for why that might be, he pointed to teachers’ salaries as a percentage of schools’ overall budget being much bigger than that of school bus drivers. Because they are not as big of a piece of the pie economically, there isn’t much focus on auxiliary positions such as bus drivers, teaching assistants, and custodial staff, he said.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing, because I know that if a kid has a quality bus ride to and from school, [that can] make the kid’s day,” Zylstra noted. “Some kids with behavioral challenges love their bus drivers. If we can get as many good people in those positions as possible, it’s valuable to the school and worth the extra compensation.”
Meanwhile, as he more than keeps busy studying for his degree on the evenings and weekends and works as a principal during the week, Zylstra does see some upsides, amid the challenge of being crunched for time, in driving a bus a few times a month. He has gained more empathy for the drivers, and driving helps him get to know the students better.
“I can better understand when [drivers] come to me with a disciplinary issue, having driven the route with some regularity,” Zylstra said.
He also enjoys seeing where the students live and spending more time with them in a different setting.
“The school bus is less structured [than the classroom]. There’s not the demand of learning, so it’s more of a social experience for the kids. They think it’s fun when the principal drives. They don’t usually think of the principal that way, and it’s nice,” Zylstra said. “You wave at parents as you drop their kids off and they think it’s unique that the principal drives.”