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Changing bell times among options for schools facing bus driver shortage

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    LEE’S SUMMIT, Missouri (KCTV, KSMO) — Lee’s Summit school parents could find school start and end times changing come fall. It’s one of several options being discussed to address an expected shortage in school bus drivers.

A school bus now sits along Tudor Road for all to see as they drive by. A large banner hung on it reads, “Now Hiring.”

But so are a lot of other folks.

District transportation staff say getting enough people behind the wheel of a school bus has been hard for years. Driving a school bus requires a lot of training, patience and responsibility.

“We’ve seen a lot of changes, and it’s all been for student safety,” explained Director of Transportation Keith Henry, who celebrated the changes. “But back in the day you just needed a chauffeur’s license and you kicked the tires and you’d light the fires and you go.”

The district said private sector drivers make an average of $5 per hour more than area school bus drivers, who need the same CDL.

But Lee’s Summit also has 10 unexpected retirements and a pandemic hiring freeze they’re playing catch up on.

“Because of reduced ridership, it’s masked some of the issues that we’ve had with bus driver shortage,” said Dr. Emily Miller, Assistant Superintendent of Operational Services.

Miller and Henry presented the problem and possible short-term solutions to the school board during a work session Thursday night.

They noted that the district hired 26 drivers since March of last year but lost 40.

One board member suggested they survey drivers to find out what’s needed to draw and keep more of them.

“I know some of it is the hourly rate. Probably some of it is the number of hours. All of those kinds of things. But I would like to hear that from our drivers,” said board member Judy Hedrick.

Recruitment is just one option for addressing the challenge.

Another would involve more kids walking. The administration wasn’t a fan of that.

“You could increase walk zones, but I’m not really excited about that for an equity issue,” remarked Superintendent Dr. David Buck.

Furthermore, Henry said, it would only free up six buses and drivers at most.

“Walk zones are not a lot of bang for the buck,” Henry told the board, “but it is something to consider if need be.”

Yet another approach would involve re-arranging the start times for routes. The administration presented four different options, but each has its downsides.

*Two options would lead to elementary schools being dismissed later, at 4:15 p.m.
*A third would involve high school starting sooner, at 7:17 a.m.
*The fourth would involve middle school starting sooner, at 7:15 a.m.

Rearranging schedules is a complicated task because buses are used not just for the primary and secondary schools but also for district-wide programs, Career Centers, the Great Beginnings Early Education Center and sports.

One challenge is the district’s “late start Wednesdays,” meant to give teachers and staff time alone to discuss learning. That late start time causes routes to overlap with the regular routes to career centers, which, any other day of the week, would happen after school had already begun.

One idea floated was to change the off day for the Great Beginnings’ four-day week from Friday to Wednesday.

Board member Kathryn Campbell questioned if there could instead be a better day and time for the staff-only collaboration than Wednesday mornings.

All the ideas discussed Thursday are just that, preliminary ideas subject to adjustment.

The district now plans to send a survey to parents, have another work session, then make a recommendation to the board for vote in mid-June.

For a closer look at the preliminary suggestions, go to the district’s Board Docs page on the topic.

KCTV5 reached out to other metro-area districts to see how they are doing with bus driver staffing. Most said it’s a constant challenge. Nearly all said they are fully staffed for this school year but will begin recruiting again for next school year.

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