Its transportation department — with 33 employees and an annual budget of a $1.36 million — has a full fleet of 18 buses, but not enough people to drive them.
“The district is short of drivers,” admits Assistant Superintendent Erasmo Rodriguez. “We can’t compete with the big boys.”
Meaning, a person with a commercial driver’s license (CDL) can get work in the Eagle Ford Shale program at significantly higher wages than what BISD pays.
In spite of the lure of a sign-up bonus, the district is so short of drivers that Director of Transportation Al Alvarado is driving a bus.
“We’re five drivers short,” he says. “If we have five people here with CDL licenses, they would be driving tomorrow.”
The economic reality is that, while the district pays its drivers $11 to $14 an hour, Eagle Ford Shale drivers earn between $25 and $30 an hour.
Rodriguez briefed BISD trustees on the salary disparity last night at an executive session of the board; Alvarado is contacting other school districts to determine what they pay their drivers.
Rodriguez told board members at the meeting, “I am telling you now, we have a challenge in getting new drivers.”
Also, he reminded the board that none of the members of the transportation department has received a raise in four years
The driver shortage came into focus last week when a driver called in sick, resulting in a shortage of buses at Moreno Middle School.
Around 60 students were stranded.
“We’ve never faced this problem before,” Rodriguez says, “because we’ve never had this kind of driver shortage before.”
He now is contacting every principal in BISD to arrange for students who are left stranded to be kept in a specific area under supervision until a bus can pick them up.
Finding a location is easy, Rodriguez says, but finding someone to supervise them — and paying them — could be more difficult.
Even though the driver who was ill notified Alvarado shortly after noon, there was nothing he could do to find another driver.
The district says that perhaps it should have notified Moreno School Principal Joni Barber, but because no policy was in place, Rodriguez is uncertain what action she might have taken.
Barber has suggested the district’s sending a letter home to parents explaining that because of the driver shortage, there is the possibility that their children might be coming home late because their bus might have to make two trips.
By the time an extra bus got to Moreno, most of the stranded students had found other ways to get home.
One concerned parent whose child was stranded contacted BISD to ask what would have happened had her child been handicapped.
Rodriguez dismisses that fear.
“Students are picked up by our bus and taken to A.C. Jones High School where they then transfer to whichever bus takes them home,” he explained. “But challenged students have their own bus, which takes them directly home.”
In addition to asking the board to review the district’s salary structure for bus drivers, Rodriguez is asking 32 BISD coaches to get their commercial driver’s license so that they can drive buses to spring-heavy athletic and other extracurricular activities.
The district pays for the license fees. But, the demand for CDL drivers has clogged the Texas Department of Public Safety office here; the procedure can take as long as two months.
To speed up the process, Rodriguez has contacted the regional DPS office in Alice to see if the local DPS office could arrange for potential BISD drivers to take the tests for the 20-hour course as a group.
And, although earning a CDL was not a requirement when Alvarado became transportation director, Rodriguez expects that to be a requirement for any future transportation director.
“Parents need to be aware that we are doing the best we can, with the staff we have, to make sure their kids get home safely,” Rodriguez says.
“We can’t match the Eagle Ford salaries,” he adds, “but we can sure give our people a little boost to entice them to work for us. We have to be more competitive.”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.