All employees are essential to keeping a pupil transportation operation running smoothly, school bus drivers being one of the most critical. After all, having too few drivers means the responsibility of transporting students may fall on the shoulders of other personnel, creating a domino effect of additional work for many people.
Substitute school bus drivers are no less important than regular bus drivers — in fact, officials suggest these drivers can make or break an operation.
“They are life savers to a transportation operation,” says Ron Latko, director of transportation and vehicle maintenance at Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools (MPS). “You can’t run a responsible transportation department without these reliable people. They know the schools, the kids, the various vehicles and are extremely flexible in what they do.”
What to look for in candidates
Many operations select their substitutes from their existing pool of drivers, and because these employees are required to essentially be a “jack of all trades,” there are specific qualities that managers look for when seeking out potential candidates.
Brian Weisinger, director of transportation at Spring Independent School District (ISD) in Houston, says that drivers in his department have to apply for the position — they’re referred to as auxiliary drivers — and applicants must undergo an interview.
“They have to have a can-do attitude,” he says. “These are also people who are very strong with student management.”
Mike Shedor, area general manager for First Student’s central region, likens substitute drivers to substitute teachers, in that when that driver steps on a bus, he or she may not know all of the students.
To that end, “they have to quickly build rapport with students and understand the route,” Shedor says. “You also want to have someone who’s patient because there may be some students who want to test the driver.”
Shedor believes it’s also important for a sub driver to have a strong understanding of and familiarity with the area that the operation serves because he or she may be called upon to drive a route without having previously driven it.
At First Student’s terminal in Edwardsville, Ill., Manager John Mollett says only the top-performing drivers on staff are considered for substitute positions. Specifically, he looks for drivers who understand the operation’s goals and mission, and drivers who are flexible, willing to work any hours, and who are knowledgeable of the school district’s routes and what is expected of them.
Certain requirements must be met
Not only is it beneficial for drivers to have certain characteristics to help them handle the responsibilities associated with a substitute position, at some districts, they must meet certain criteria before they can apply for or be considered for the position.
At both Spring ISD and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD (also in Houston), bus drivers must be employed by the district for at least one year before they are eligible to become a substitute driver. (At Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, front-line or full-time subs are classified as charter drivers.)
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Director of Transportation Bill Powell says the candidates must also have acceptable attendance.
Weisinger says Spring ISD’s auxiliary drivers have to be a full-time driver for at least one year so that they can gain knowledge of the district and how it’s run. It also enables Weisinger to get to know the employee.
“[In the past], I’ve had sub drivers who were new employees, and they weren’t full time,” he says. “I find more comfort in having my sub drivers already trained and seasoned veterans on the road working with these kids. If you have new employees coming into the substitute pool, the chances of them making a mistake is increased because they don’t have the experience.”
Substitute driver positions at MPS are posted as the need for them arises, and Latko says it is imperative that the individuals who apply for the positions have the necessary district training, including certifications, to be considered.
The department’s training program exceeds the state’s requirements by approximately triple the amount of time required in the classroom and behind the wheel.
Additionally, all drivers (including substitutes) are required to have “MPS certifications.”
As an example, Latko says that if a “driver of a Type A bus wants to start doing field trips and hasn’t driven a Type C or D in more than six months, they must be recertified to MPS standards. Or, if a regular-education bus driver successfully bids for a special-education route, they must take two days of special-education driver training for their MPS certification in special-education driving.”
At Moorpark (Calif.) Unified School District, sub drivers must be available on an on-call basis.
“We attempt to give them as much notice as possible,” Director of Transportation Tony Briscoe says of assigning them to routes or trips. “If they regularly turn down assignments, they are removed from the substitute list. As a substitute driver, they’re not eligible to do field trips unless our entire permanent driving staff has declined the trip. They are not assigned to a route unless we have a permanent employee out on long-term leave.”
[PAGEBREAK]Components of management
A lot goes into managing bus drivers — substitutes and non-substitutes alike. Here are several factors and how operations address them with substitutes.
• Training for new substitutes. While Mollett says that he prefers to select his substitute drivers from his existing employees, there have been times when the operation has needed to hire subs. In this case, drivers who are hired undergo an in-depth training program, and then they are assigned to a mentor. The mentor is a certified trainer, and the driver must report to the mentor for 90 days after undergoing training.
“In addition to that, I don’t expose them to a route unless they have someone else with them,” he says. “We want this new sub to be familiar with the routes, so I’ll assign them to existing routes with drivers and have them drive those routes — as many as possible.”
• Pay rate and hours. At MPS, substitute drivers are paid the same rate as non-subs, but Latko says they are contract (which gives them the same benefits as a full-time driver), and they are guaranteed 40 hours of work per week.
“Each of our three locations has a number of sub drivers, and the site supervisors set the schedules for those drivers at the specific locations,” he explains. “The number of field trips we may have on any given day will determine if we have sub drivers on duty, or how many will be on duty.”
The charter drivers at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD work eight hours per day every school day. Powell says there are also drivers in his department classified as “emergency call-in drivers.” These employees are not guaranteed any hours, and they are called to drive on an as-needed basis.
“They maintain their regular hourly rate, and they provide us with their schedules as to when they are available to us,” he explains. “We do not require any hours on weekends or driving field trips. Emergency call-in drivers must drive at least one route per week to maintain their status.”
• Staggering shifts keeps things moving. Shedor says the First Student terminals in the area he oversees have worked to become more efficient over the past several years by staggering their start shifts where it’s possible.
“If there are a number of shifts, we might have our sub drivers start at 5:30, 6, 6:30 and 7 a.m.,” he explains. “The sub drivers are there every day, but by staggering the shifts, we don’t have everyone sitting around waiting for their assignment.”
Few challenges to address
Many supervisors say that managing their substitute drivers can be easier than managing other drivers because subs are typically so well trained and familiar with the operation.
“I find the auxiliary drivers to be easier to manage because they do have previous experience with us and they are full-time employees,” Weisinger says. “It takes less effort on my part to manage these people because they’re all self-starters.”
Most of Moorpark Unified School District’s substitute drivers are people who formerly worked for the district as bus drivers and have since retired, or they work for other departments within the district.
“It tends to work out very well for us, and they have the flexibility to turn down assignments as long as it is not done on a regular basis,” Briscoe says.