QUINCY -- School districts on both sides of the Mississippi River are having difficulty finding enough qualified people to work as bus drivers.
And it's not just a local issue. School districts all across the nation are struggling to find bus drivers -- a situation that has only grown worse as the economy has boomed and unemployment remained low.
"We're always short of bus drivers," said Shane Barnes, transportation director for the Quincy School District.
"It kind of ebbs and flows," he said. "It goes along with the job market. When unemployment is high, we usually have a lot of applicants. And then when the job market is better," it becomes harder to find people willing to drive a school bus, he said.
Barnes said the main reason it's so difficult to find a sufficient number of bus drivers is the limited hours of work available to new drivers.
"Everybody starts out as a substitute," Barnes explained. Substitute bus drivers, while called upon frequently, only work a couple of hours in the morning driving students to school and a couple of hours in the afternoon driving them home.
That translates into about 20 hours of work each week, which is fine if someone only is looking for a part-time job.
"But if you're looking to support a whole family and be the breadwinner of the family, that probably isn't enough for you," Barnes said.
Even though the Quincy School District pays drivers a competitive wage -- ranging from $12.65 to $17.57 per hour depending on the driver's years of experience in the district -- a part-timer working only 20 hours or less per week doesn't qualify for health insurance, which is another drawback.
Drivers who work between 20 and 30 hours a week qualify for limited health insurance benefits, while a driver has to work 30 hours or more to receive full health insurance benefits. That's why there is often keen competition for the choicest assignments that offer extra hours of driving, including out-of-town trips.
Even then, the district sees considerable turnover within the ranks of bus drivers, and it remains tough to find new drivers willing to start at the bottom and work their way up the seniority list.
Barnes said Quincy employs about 80 regular route bus drivers. It also has an average of 14 substitutes on call -- and they are called frequently, especially when regular route drivers are hauling groups of students or athletes to out-of-town events.
"We'll take as many substitute drivers as we can handle," Barnes said. "We'll keep them busy."
In Northeast Missouri, the bus driver shortage is just as acute.
"It's been difficult for years for us to find full-time bus drivers, and it's been difficult to find substitute bus drivers," said Kirt Malone, superintendent of the Palmyra R-1 School District.
Malone said the district has encouraged other school district employees to get their commercial driver's licenses so they could step in and drive if needed.
"Our transportation director drives a bus quite a bit during the day," he said. "Our bus mechanic drives a bus. We even have several coaches that are certified to drive buses."
Several years ago the district offered an incentive to district employees to become qualified to serve as bus drivers in a pinch. One person who stepped forward was the band director, who occasionally drives the band on trips when other drivers are unavailable.
Malone said many of the district's bus drivers "are either in the retirement stage or nearing the end of the retirement stage, and they're ready to enjoy not working." So the district frequently has to seek out new drivers.
"It just hasn't been easy to find replacements for those people," he said.
John French, superintendent of the Lewis County C-1 School District based in Lewistown, said his district is "absolutely" facing the same challenge in trying to find bus drivers.
"There's always a shortage," he said. "We have a very small pool to draw applicants from. It's an ever-growing concern, and we struggle to find people that are qualified and willing to do what's needed to be qualified to do it."
In Missouri, school bus drivers not only need to have a commercial driver's license, but they also must pass a complicated state test to demonstrate they are familiar with every part of a school bus that must be checked off during a pre-trip bus inspection.
French said he believes the testing procedure is tougher than it needs to be. He said applicants taking the test "are not allowed to have a checklist to read from" as they touch or point to every bus part that must be inspected, ranging from brake lines under the bus to cotter pins on the manifold.
"They're expected to know all of that," Malone said. "It's a pretty daunting task for most, especially if they're not very mechanically inclined."
Several years ago, French recalled, he assembled a group of district administrators to learn about the testing process so they, too, could conceivably become certified to drive school buses in an emergency.
As the administrators watched a veteran bus driver demonstrate all the various bus parts that had to be identified, French looked around at the faces of the assembled administrators. "All of them were in a deep panic" over the rigorous testing procedure, he said.
While French would like to see driver candidates be allowed to refer to a checklist when doing this test, he acknowledged the importance of making sure school bus drivers know what they're doing.
"Of course we want the most qualified drivers to be transporting our most valuable possessions -- our children," he said. "I don't want unsafe buses or drivers that aren't qualified out there."
French said paying drivers more might be a way to help attract more candidates to become bus drivers.
"The question is, where does that money come from?" he said. "Funding is short all over -- and especially in transportation."