Each student who caught the school bus Wednesday — the first day of school this year — met at a central location, something the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District implemented to address a bus driver shortage.
So far, Wednesday morning’s start went better than last year, transportation director Ryan Hinton said.
“It’s the first day, and we are experiencing the first day issues, so there’s good and bad,” Hinton told the News-Miner Wednesday. “We have new routers and some kids we need help to sort out, but for the morning routes everything went really good with a few exceptions.”
Some of those exceptions included delays, some less than 15 minutes, some longer than 15 minutes. For the longer delays, the district investigate and solve the problems.
“Some of the issues are just due to students finding their stops as they find their rhythms,” Hinton said.
The district will operate 68 routes for at least the next few weeks, perhaps longer. That includes 45 general education routes which now have designated central neighborhood stops; the other 23 routes are special education and will operate as normal.
“We want to make sure that we make sure things are stable and that we will have the drivers before we add more routes,” Hinton said. “The last thing we want to do is add more routes and then have.”
Durham provides update
Durham School Services currently has 83 bus drivers for the Fairbanks area, according to Will Zimmerman, the bus company’s region operations manager, along with nine temporary drivers brought up from the Lower 48 for the start of school.
Zimmerman provided a brief update to the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Board of Education Tuesday night, noting Durham and its parent company are dedicated to full staffing at this point.
This includes a $5,000 signing bonus for drivers with commercial driver’s license and endorsements, $2,000 for those who need training and $1,000 referral bonuses; 10 fresh drivers are estimated to come through the pipeline by the end of August.
The challenge, so far, has been competition from the tourism industry, Zimmerman said, and some Durham employees also took summer jobs.
“We didn’t quite foresee the impact that we thought we would see,” Zimmerman said. However, Zimmerman said Durham expects eight to 10 drivers to return when summer tourism and construction winds down, but that will only serve to replace the drivers on loan from the Lower 48.
The bus driver shortage forced the district to start the year with 68 routes, 46 of which are regular bus schedules that will pick students up at a centralized neighborhood location instead of traveling into side streets.
The district and Durham have attempted to alleviate this issue by using a fleet of minivans, geared toward those students who are considered homeless or live too far from a bus stop.
Prior to the start of the year, the school set out to recruit district employees to drive minivans outside their normal working hours.
Durham currently has seven vans in the area and will be bringing up six from the Lower 48 in the next few weeks.
The district contracted with Durham to cover 130 routes, though driver shortages over the last two years have made that difficult. The district had targeted 115 routes, which was deemed close to normal service, but at least 130 drivers are needed to cover that number
Chief School Administrator Karen Melin said people who drive the minivans would be Durham contract employees for that purpose, citing legal and insurance reasons.
“We thought they could originally do it as school employees, clock in and do their shift, but because of the way the vans are leased to Durham, they need to be Durham employees,” Melin said.
Melin said the district’s “van plan” wasn’t implemented for Wednesday, the first day of school, “because we are still training the drivers.”
“We are still working through how that level of interaction [of being Durham employees] is going to happen,” Melin told the board. “As soon as possible, we will start utilizing those vans.
Asked why the minivans can’t be used to transport Hutchison High School students to and from school, especially those from North Pole, Melin said Hutchison was a school of choice.
“Transportation to schools of choice happens only once we have provided transportation to all of our students so that we can attend their attendance area schools,” Melin said.
Board member Erin Morotti said she had asked about projected transportation savings with the current reduced routes but was told it was too early to calculate. Morotti called the response unacceptable.
The goal, she said, would be to compare the savings with the total budged amount and “reallocate those funds as we [the board] see fit.”
Melin reiterated the transportation savings are still an unknown factor.
“Any monies we are saving from not having routes will go toward the vans,” Melin said.
Board president Jennifer Luke recommended giving district administration a few weeks to collect solid information.
“Things are still in flux,” Luke said. “Give them a few weeks to ensure that we know that this is the number of routes we are holding at and this is the van routes we will have.”
Other board members agreed to more time, with Luke ultimately requesting a report after the district completes its October student count.