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North County parents feel impacts of school bus driver shortage

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When Shane Patrick moved to Atascadero from Monterey with her son four years ago, she didn't realize she'd be taking on a new parenting task: Driving her son to and from school.

CATCH THE BUS North County school administrators say a bus drivers shortage is what's driving limitations on bus services. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • CATCH THE BUS North County school administrators say a bus drivers shortage is what's driving limitations on bus services.

"And I was absolutely shocked that there wasn't a school bus to take my child to school, especially considering how rural it was," Patrick said. "We had buses in Monterey."

For secondary school students, the Atascadero Unified School District (AUSD) only offers bus services to children with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as is required by law, and those "who live south of Santa Barbara Road, and in Santa Margarita, Creston, and Carrisa Plains," the district's website states.

For primary school students, bus service is offered, but students must be dropped off at a site on West Mall Street between the middle school and Fine Arts Academy, said Stacey Phillips, AUSD executive assistant to the superintendent.

"I live within city limits, but my kid's school is 5 miles away from my house," Patrick said. "If my car wouldn't start, my kid couldn't get to school."

For the district to offer more drop-off stations, Phillips said it would need additional bus drivers—something that's in a severe shortage right now. Paso Robles Joint Unified School District (PRJUSD) Transportation Director Kelly Stainbrook said the shortage is evident in Paso, too.

"It's been happening for the last five years," Stainbrook said. "We have people that [are] moving out of state or retiring, which happens."

Stainbrook said PRJUSD covers training costs, and offers a competitive starting wage of $18 per hour for bus drivers. According to the AUSD website, the district also offers training, plus a starting pay of $17.61 per hour for bus drivers and $15.56 per hour for van drivers.

But even those who do have access to bus services are feeling the effects of driver shortages. Parent Ayla Arnold said her two daughters both ride the bus because they have IEPs.

"I think the biggest issue that we have is that there's not enough bus drivers," Arnold said. "My girls take the special needs bus in the morning and they ride the general ed bus home in the afternoon. I've noticed in the afternoon there's only three buses, and a lot of times they're short staffed. The girls' buses are usually late."

Arnold added that riding the general ed bus is hard on her kids.

"Because of their IEP stuff and their behavior, they tend to get in a lot more trouble in the afternoon coming home on the general ed bus," Arnold said. On the special needs bus, "there's less kids and there's a five point harness on the special needs bus, where [on] the general ed bus there aren't any seat belts."

Patrick, who's son is in fourth grade, decided to look deeper into AUSD's busing for her master's program public policy class.

"Something that I found is that the state of California ranks Atascadero's rate of chronic absenteeism as high," Patrick said. "There is peer-reviewed research that shows that the availability of a school bus reduces chronic absenteeism, especially in districts that are classified as semi-rural, like ours is."

But without the drivers, North County districts say there's not much else they can do.

"We are one of the few districts that still offers free transportation to our students," Phillips said. "If there's anybody interested, we are always in need of bus drivers."

Patrick suggested that the district apply for grants.

"Atascadero just joined the [Central Coast Community Choice Energy program], and that program gives grants to school districts to electrify their transportation," Patrick said. "An electric school bus represents $170,000 in lifetime fuel and maintenance savings over a diesel. ... That's enough money to hire more drivers." Δ

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