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Lack of Bus Drivers Has Schools Across Oklahoma Straining to Fill Gaps

About a quarter of the 80 surveyed superintendents said they or other school administrators drive a bus.

A school bus waits at Stillwater Public Schools. (Beth Wallis/StateImpact Oklahoma)

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Statewide, Oklahoma public schools are experiencing a shortage of bus drivers — and they’re struggling to adapt.

School districts of all sizes are having to get creative with their responses. Coweta Public Schools has had to keep students waiting to be picked up or taken home until other routes finish. Covington-Douglas Public Schools and Clinton Public Schools pay $35 an hour, and both have had positions open since before this school year.

Guthrie Public Schools has to pay overtime to their drivers for after-school events. Beggs Public Schools has had to combine routes, resulting in some that are more than two hours long.

StateImpact analyzed every public school district in Oklahoma and found that of the 400-plus schools with hiring listings accessible on their websites or that answered a superintendent survey, over 40% showed open driver positions. About a quarter of the 80 surveyed superintendents said they or other school administrators drive a bus.

Sentinel Public Schools superintendent Jason Goostree is one of those. Sentinel is a small, rural district in western Oklahoma, about 120 miles from Oklahoma City. Most days, Goostree drives routes to and from school. He said he didn’t expect to drive buses as a superintendent and doesn’t think it will end anytime soon.

“It’s one of those things where you feel like you’re responsible for everything that happens in the district,” Goostree said. “So it’s kind of, if this is what needs to happen to make sure things go smoothly, then that’s what you’re doing.”

Sentinel Public Schools Superintendent Jason Goostree drives an afternoon route. Due to absences caused by state testing, his route that day was a short one. (Beth Wallis/StateImpact Oklahoma)

He recently met with his staff and rolled out a pitch for more field trip drivers. Being so far from a city center means it’s a non-starter for Sentinel to recruit drivers who don’t already work for the district or from the church across the street. A few teachers have their bus driving licenses, but he said it’s unfair to them and their students to pull them from their classrooms.

“If we have a field trip… you can’t start yanking people out of their jobs all the time,” Goostree said. “So I got one person, for sure, out of that meeting that said she’s going to do it, and I’m working on a second. My goal was three, but if I can get two more people by the beginning of next year, that will help quite a bit.”

While rural schools find unique challenges with recruitment, larger schools are also feeling the pinch.

Despite a recent staff pay boost, yearly step raises and district-provided benefits like health insurance, Stillwater Public Schools had to cancel all out-of-town field trips for the rest of the school year because it didn’t have enough drivers. Assistant Superintendent of Operations Bo Gamble said they still have six to eight positions open.

“Trying to balance getting students where they need to be for curricular needs and wants, there’s just a trade-off that you have to make,” Gamble said. “Not having the capacity to manage all of the trips — we had to make a decision on which trips needed to be focused on.”

Gamble said field trips during the school day are especially difficult if the bus doesn’t leave and return in the window between morning and afternoon routes. He said it’s slowly improving since COVID hit, but the local workforce pool isn’t back to normal.

“In my opinion, specifically in Oklahoma … we’ve lost a lot of our workforce to [cannabis] grow farms. There’s a large capacity for that workforce. And I think everybody’s being impacted by [a workforce shortage],” Gamble said. “With COVID, it was just kind of a perfect storm. … We’re starting to come back from it … but we still need people.”

When drivers aren’t there, teachers step in

Activity sponsors — like band directors and coaches — are also getting behind the wheel. Surveyed schools had varying policies about paying these teachers more to drive their students to contests and games — Stillwater, for example, pays them an hourly rate. Nearly all surveyed schools, though, require or strongly encourage their activity sponsors to get bus driving licenses.

But adding hours of driving onto an already taxing day for coaches and directors can present safety concerns.

Hunter Hanna was a band director at Valliant Public Schools in southeastern Oklahoma. After a full day of classes in the fall, he would drive his students to and from football games several hours away and contests the next day that lasted all day.

“Those little side things on the highways that err when you hit them? Yeah, those are definitely much-needed,” Hanna said.

He said he’s been so tired driving back late at night that he makes wrong turns, which adds more time to the trips. Mid-trip stops were a must — he said he had to get some fresh air and stretch his legs to stay awake.

“Highway hypnosis is one of the things they talk about in bus driver training because, I mean, seeing all these dark roads and just nothing on them… it was pretty bad,” Hanna said.

Before getting his bus driving license, Hanna had to coordinate a patchwork of vehicles to get his band students to activities. There was a minibus that didn’t require specific licensure, a school vehicle and parents driving their personal minivans. To avoid having to finagle that, he made the call to get his license.

Hanna’s district didn’t require him to, and it paid for training and testing. Band director Whitney Callen’s district, Newcastle Public Schools, also doesn’t require activity sponsors to get bus driving licenses, though she said she was asked in her interview if she would. Several band directors and coaches who spoke to StateImpact for this story reported the same.

“I explained that at my previous district, it was not an expectation because our head director was very clear about — his staff would not drive because of the amount of hours that we worked as band directors,” Callen said. “And they seemed a little bit put off by that.”

She said she agreed to get her license — on the stipulation that she would not drive on especially long days.

“And they were like, ‘Oh, for sure. We definitely always get drivers for our directors if it’s a long weekend,’” Callen said.

Callen experienced unexpected medical issues that kept her from getting her license this year, but she watched the head band director drive those especially long days the district had said it would prioritize finding drivers for. Her colleague downs energy drinks and has asked her to sit behind him and talk to him so he stays awake.

“The school district did not follow through on that. And so when I saw that, I was like, yeah, I’m not getting my CDL because this is not a safe environment for students or me. I shouldn’t have that pressure,” Callen said. “So it does make me feel guilty, but at the same time, it makes me feel confused — why is this even something that we put on people or ask them to do?”

Stillwater Public Schools bus driver Marvin Gardner has been driving for the district for 12 years. (Beth Wallis/StateImpact Oklahoma)

As the shortage of drivers persists, districts are filling in the gaps with teachers like Hanna and administrators like Goostree. They’re also upping pay, canceling trips, packing buses, doubling up routes and staggering start times.

Bo Gamble at Stillwater Public Schools said he thinks they can get staffing levels back up before the start of the new school year. The district advertises, holds hiring events and provides incentives for current employees. And true to form, he made a final pitch at the end of his interview:

“If you know anybody, we’re still hiring. We need drivers,” Gamble said. “I may be a little bit biased, but I think Stillwater Public Schools is a great place to work — Stillwater’s a great place to be.”

This  was originally published by . StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond.

is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janelle Stecklein for questions: info@oklahomavoice.com. Follow Oklahoma Voice on and .

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