The Bakersfield City School District has the buses and the budget, but what it doesn't have are enough drivers to get students to and from school the way it used to.
So with the start of the new school year, the district announced it was making changes to its routes and eliminating 94 bus stops, assistant superintendent of business services Sherry Gladin told the board at its Tuesday night meeting.
Elementary school students were once required to walk if they lived within a mile of school. That distance has been widened to 1.25 miles, creating nine new "walking schools" in the district.
District policy states that middle and junior high students within a 2-mile radius are required to walk to school, but previously there were bus stops within that radius. With the bus driver shortage, some of those stops have been eliminated, too.
The district has 96 bus drivers but it has funding for an additional 15 positions that are still vacant, Gladin told the board. There are 49 bus monitors and six vacant positions.
Gladin attributes the vacancies to several factors: a round of retirements and resignations, a nationwide shortage of bus drivers, a new school with new routes and competition with other districts.
In a typical year, 6,000 students, or about 1 in 5 students, use the district's busing services. But through the pandemic, only students with disabilities who require accommodation have been receiving transportation services. This year the rest of the students are once again riding the bus with loosened social distancing requirements. Two new buses are also serving the district's newest school, King Elementary, which has four new bus stops.
Over the past two years, 15 drivers in BCSD have retired or resigned.
"Working during a pandemic can encourage people to retire sooner than they otherwise might have," said Gladin.
This comes at the same time there is a nationwide shortage of bus drivers — and a shortage of labor, generally. Even Golden Empire Transit District said a driver shortage is affecting routes locally. There's strong competition between school districts. Gladin said BCSD lost some part-time drivers to districts that were able to offer full-time positions. Bus substitutes are in short supply, too.
The changes have prompted concerns from parents. One parent at Tuesday's meeting said she was worried about her children who attend Cato Middle School and now have to cross Highway 178 from City in the Hills. She said she worries about speeding drivers or red light-runners at the intersection where students cross.
During her presentation, Gladin said that when the district finds bus drivers to hire, the district will reassess its routes.
Its first priority will be students with disabilities who require transportation. Board policy requires these students "do not spend an excessive amount of time on buses compared to other students." Gladin said they want to ensure that these students are not spending an hour and a half or two hours on buses.
The next priority would be looking at where students are crossing uncontrolled intersections. She pointed out that some students are crossing Union and Chester avenues with crossing guards but without a stoplight, like the students at Highway 178.
"We cover a vast amount of area, and so we have to give perspective to the areas that pose the highest risk for our students, due not only to traffic speed but traffic volume and controlled traffic sections," Gladin said.
Gladin said the district is working to fill its vacancies with increased advertising and a paid bus driver trainee program. It is also offering expanded services positions, which allow bus drivers to have a full-time position with the district: a bus driver can drive a route and then finish their 8 hours performing custodial work.