A nationwide shortage of school bus drivers means students, here and across the country, are spending more time on crowded buses.
“We could use up to three more full-time drivers,” Palestine Independent School District Director of Transportation Breck Quarles told the Herald-Press Monday. “We have enough to cover all routes right now. If there's a flu outbreak or something, however, we're in a bind.”
Signature yellow buses and their friendly drivers – redolent of a Normal Rockwell painting – have carried U.S. school children for 80 years. Today, however, low unemployment and poor pay have diminished the supply of school bus drivers.
PISD now employs 20 full-time drivers, six part-timers, and three more “pool” drivers who work on standby.
Quarles, 54, said he is ready to interview more applicants. Thank to a state-funded pay raise for school employees this year, he's also also ready to offer more money.
“Last year, drivers were making $14 an hour,” he said. “This year, thanks to the state and to our school board, drivers now start at $17 an hour.”
Additionally, other PISD employees who agree to drive a school-bus can earn a $1,000 bonus.
“We have employees, and even teachers driving this year,” Quarles said. “That's a benefit, because they are usually already familiar with the kids.”
Transportation Supervisor Kathy Evans, a 45-year PISD employee, said the benefits to driving for PISD don't end with a larger paycheck. The school district picks up most of the training and qualifying costs, she said, except for the applicant's class “B” license.
The cost of the Department of Transportation-required physical, which can run more than $50, is covered for qualified applicants. Fees for fingerprinting, drug tests, and a 20-hour, $160 course required by the state also are covered by the district.
“By the time new drivers get behind the wheel, we've invested quite a bit in them,” Evans said.
New drivers may apply when they turn 18, but Evans said PISD consider drivers only 21 or older. There is no upper-age limit.
“We are an equal opportunity employer,” Evans said. “Some of our drivers are in their 70's; if they can pass the physical and meet the requirements, we will consider them for employment.”
Passing a driver's test or physical does not automatically qualify someone to be a bus-driver – at least not in Palestine.
“(Drivers) are part of the educational process, just as much as math, science, or social studies” Quarles said. “Whomever we hire has to have a heart for children. They are the first face of our school in the morning, and the last face the kids see when they're dropped off.”
For information on applying, call Breck Quarles at 903-731-8038.