MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Early last month, a small school in Maine was forced to cancel classes. No, this was not because of snow or ice. The district couldn't find enough bus drivers to pick up all the students. As it turns out, low unemployment has meant that across the country, workers are passing on school bus driving jobs for better-paying work. As Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg reports, this has left districts scrambling to get students to school.
LISA BRASSBRIDGE: Hi. How was your day?
ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: Today, most mornings and afternoons, Lisa Brassbridge watches her two granddaughters hop on and off the bus in front of their house nestled in the woods of Swanville, a small town far up the coast of Maine. Yet one day early last month, Brassbridge received an unusual alert on her phone about 10 minutes before her granddaughter was set to leave. It was from her school.
BRASSBRIDGE: And it says, due to a shortage of bus drivers, there will be no bus runs in the Swanville area today, January 7, 2019.
FEINBERG: According to the district, several drivers called out for personal reasons. And with so few substitutes available to fill in, officials canceled class at Swanville's Nickerson elementary school. The district's middle and high schools stayed open, but the alert said that older students would have to find their own ride.
BRASSBRIDGE: And I said, Leah, (laughter) I don't think you're going to school today. There's no buses. And she was like, what? And I messaged a friend of mine that works in the district and asked her if it was real 'cause it just didn't seem real.
FEINBERG: It was real, and its late notice made her angry. Brassbridge wasn't working that day and could stay home with her granddaughter. Others, though, had to quickly find child care or figure out how to drive their older students into school. And while the situation in this small town is extreme, the problem - a lack of school bus drivers - is happening almost everywhere.
MICHAEL DETWILER: This swing has been about two to three years now going. It gets a little worse every year.
FEINBERG: Michael Detwiler is the transportation supervisor for the Great Valley School District near Philadelphia. He also leads the transportation committee for the Association of School Business Officials International. He says part of the reason for this shortage is a good economy. Detwiler says bus driving jobs require a commercial driver's license yet are often part-time with limited benefits. So when better jobs are available...
DETWILER: They get licensed, and, you know, they move on to, you know, UPS, FedEx. And the economy is very strong right now, so there's a lot of better-paying jobs out there.
FEINBERG: A recent survey from School Bus Fleet magazine found that more than 90 percent of responding school districts had some kind of driver shortage. Nearly a third say it's severe or desperate. To compensate, districts are merging together bus routes. Others are putting office assistants and mechanics behind the wheel. But that means a lot of buses now aren't getting fixed. Pay is starting to get better. Bus driver wages rose by nearly a dollar an hour nationwide from 2017 to 2018. But Detwiler says the incentives have yet to make much of an impact.
DETWILER: Companies are offering sign-on bonuses. They offer bonuses for attendance. They offer bonuses for no damage to the vehicle. But it just doesn't seem to be working.
FEINBERG: In Swanville, school officials are assuring families that they've put together a new plan that they say will prevent the school from having to close again. But the district still doesn't have quite enough bus drivers. So at a recent meeting, the superintendent told the gathered Swanville parents that she'd brought along a big pile of substitute bus driver job applications and encouraged them to apply. For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in coastal Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.