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School bus drivers in short supply in Harrison County, elsewher

by Gail Marsh

STAFF WRITER

Wanted: A few good drivers to transport precious cargo.

The Harrison County school system is struggling to come up with enough bus drivers to cover all of its daily school bus routes.

But it's not just a local problem. School bus drivers are in short supply throughout the state and the nation.

Wayne Clutter, executive director for school transportation at the state Department of Education, said the shortage is probably due to the strong economy.

"With a booming economy, people are finding jobs elsewhere. I don't think there's really any other explanation," he said.

Also, employees who obtain the required commercial driver's license (CDL) to drive buses with more than 16 passengers often move on to other jobs.

"Once the drivers get the training and pass the CDL test, they go to work for a trucking company making more money," Clutter said.

In Harrison County, bus drivers cover 98 regular routes. There are currently 16 substitute drivers to fill in if someone can't do his or her route.

But 10 of those 16 drivers are working in long-term positions, filling in for people off on workers compensation or for some other reason, leaving only six people to fill in for absent drivers.

Victor Gabriel, administrative assistant for support services, said the shortage has not yet been a real problem, but it could be in the future.

"We really don't know how many subs we'll need from day to day," he said. "We had an instance recently where a driver couldn't make his afternoon route, and we had to divide the kids up among five buses to get them home because there was no sub."

Gabriel said 11 people signed up to take the most recent training to become bus drivers, but there are only five who remain in the class. People drop out for various reasons, he said.

"It's a big responsibility to transport our most valuable resource, our children, and I think some people decide that they don't want to drive down a snow- and ice-covered road and take that responsibility," he said.

Money can also be an issue. A starting bus driver in Harrison County makes $12,600 for driving 10 months of the year. A driver begins work at about 6 a.m. to about 8 a.m. and returns to work again from 2 p.m. to about 4 p.m.

"There are a lot of benefits, including health, dental, optical and life insurance paid by the state once they become a regular driver. You factor that in, and it's not such a bad job," Gabriel said.

People who want to drive a school bus must be at least 19 years of age and have three years of driving experience. They must pass a physical, including an eye exam, must take a 30-hour course and get some behind-the-wheel experience before taking a state test.

Applicants must also take an eight-hour first aid course and must take CPR training.

Drivers who want to drive the larger buses must pass the CDL test.

Drivers who do stay in the system are required to get annual physicals and to keep their training up to date.

Gabriel said he hopes to begin the next training class as soon as school is out in June.

For more information or an application, people can call the Harrison County School Transportation Office at 624-3390.

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