WEYBURN - A biennial report regarding student transportation issues received some healthy discussions and questions from South East Cornerstone Public School Division board members on Jan. 18 for a general business session in Weyburn.
Andy Dobson, manager of facilities and transportation, was in the room to deliver the information that was used to provoke a series of discussions and questions. The questions were mostly aimed at the growing concern of filling school bus driver positions now and in the future.
“These are challenging times, but not only in our school division,” Dobson said during his opening remarks. “Drivers, keeping routes open, cost of buses…” he added, were all ongoing concerns in practically all school divisions.
Two bus routes are currently going unfilled in Oxbow and Oungre, and Dobson said he is expecting that further routes will be lost as the current roster of bus drivers retire, some after 50 years of service, and their roles are not being filled in spite of recruitment fairs and bus driver finder rewards of up to $500.
Some other routes are being disrupted due to the bus garage technicians and mechanics being unable to procure necessary parts to make repairs.
Dobson said from the 156 bus routes in Cornerstone, 1,088 routes have been cancelled in the past six months due to mechanical concerns (44), weather (292 full days and 206 half days), or lack of a substitute driver (438 full days and 108 half days).
Dobson said there is a lack of spare bus drivers in all sectors, but more intense in the rural areas.
He said the last driver recruitment fair and efforts did result in eight to 10 recruits, but then “retaining them is a challenge,” he said. That is often due to the time required to train and then certify them and the fact that early recruits are assigned duties as a spare driver.
He said recruitment fairs have shown degrees of success and will be held again in Weyburn, Estevan, Moosomin and Carlyle.
Dobson said several young mothers are now making up a lot of the driver rosters.
Board chairwoman Audrey Trombley asked whether salaries were an issue, but Dobson replied that Cornerstone held its own in that sector compared with other divisions, and the salaries are tied to collective agreements where drivers are contracted for five hours of service per school day.
Deputy director of education Gord Husband confirmed that Cornerstone’s pay was comparable to other bus driver pay scales across the province.
Dobson said an ongoing program to recruit drivers will continue as will such things as posters and the $500 finding fee for current drivers who recruit another driver that stays on the job for at least six months.
The training, testing, criminal background checks are now more intense and are all taking more time. Medical testing costs are covered, but that also takes up more time than ever before, he added.
Routes out of Lampman, Carievale and Fillmore have been designated as looming trouble spots, Dobson added.
When bus drivers can’t be found for rural routes and parents drive the children to schools, they are eligible for compensation as of the third consecutive day the route is cancelled, with compensation based on the school division’s established mileage rate.
“It used to be that farmers drove and if they were busy then their wives drove the bus, but now farms are much bigger, they don’t have time and there aren’t as many of them,” said Trombley in ending the conversation, with the hopes that more help might be on the way in the bus driver world in southeast Saskatchewan.