Chris Dowdy joined the Valley Mills Independent School District in Texas in 2015, starting as an elementary school principal. The Texas native and Rangers baseball fan spent several years before that as a teacher, assistant principal, and coach in Gatesville ISD and in Little River-Academy ISD. Now the superintendent of Valley Mills ISD, Dowdy made the local TV news when – faced with a school bus driver shortage – he took the wheel himself and ran bus routes for his students. He earned his commercial driver’s license when he first stated coaching and teaching in 2001.
In this interview with School Bus Fleet, Dowdy talks about the struggles his district has faced, from COVID 19 to the driver shortage, and what he’s gained from his experiences behind the wheel of “the yellow dog.”
1. What led you to a career in education?
Honestly, it’s the only thing I ever saw myself doing. I grew up around sports and had some amazing and influential coaches along the way, so I had every intention of being a life-long coach and teacher. But as I say often, life happens, and sometimes plans change.
2. When and how did the school bus driver shortage start manifesting problems for your district?
Being a small, rural school district in Central Texas, we have always struggled with finding bus drivers. It makes it difficult when you have larger neighboring school districts that sometimes are capable of paying a little more than us, but we currently have five hard-working and dedicated drivers who do a remarkable job of getting our kids to school and back home safely.
COVID just added additional obstacles. Luckily, during the 2020-21 school year, our bus drivers avoided COVID and everything went smoothly. However, this school year two of our drivers have been affected, leaving transportation in a little crunch.
3. What led to your decision to take the wheel of a bus yourself this year?
Everyone in Valley Mills ISD has a common mentality of doing whatever it takes to ensure our students are successful. Being a small school district, outside of our regular bus drivers, there aren't many who possess a CDL and school bus driver endorsement. Our athletic coaches are extremely busy this time of the year with volleyball, cross-country, and football, so I wasn't about to ask our athletic director to pull one of his coaches off the field to drive. I just happened to be the next person available. If we had additional certified drivers, they would've stepped up and done the same thing.
4. What insights have you gained while filling the part-time role of bus driver in this pandemic-complicated school year?
School bus drivers everywhere are so important for the success of a school district. For many students, drivers are the first educator they see in the morning and last in the afternoon. Drivers play an integral role in not only the academic success, but also the social and emotional well-being of students. I have a deep appreciation for all educators, especially during these difficult times.
5. How is your district approaching recruitment for new drivers? Are you offering higher salaries or other special incentives?
We constantly run advertising campaigns on our social media platforms, as well as posting positions on numerous employment websites. I believe that we pay pretty well for bus drivers ($16.55 hour, up from $15 two years ago), but obviously we'd love to be able to pay them more. All of our drivers are guaranteed four hours per day, and, like I said earlier, we are blessed that we are fully staffed at the current time. Fingers crossed that it stays that way!