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Districts Scrambling To Keep the Driver's Seat Filled

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While most of Atlanta was reveling last fall in the fanfare surrounding preparations for the 1996 Olympics, the school system's transportation director was in dire straits. On the worst day in the months leading up to this past summer's two-week event, John Williams had 45 school bus routes without drivers.

Lured by higher salaries and the excitement of the Games, the district's drivers had flocked en masse to jobs escorting the thousands of visitors to the city.

But Mr. Williams' problem was only temporary. When the Games ended, drivers returned to their district jobs, which pay $11 to $16 per hour with full benefits.

In other districts across the country, school transportation officials have raised salaries, guaranteed work hours, and offered signing bonuses in an effort to attract drivers. But low pay, strict licensing and drug-testing requirements, and the problems that arise from escorting as many as 70 children to school make it difficult to attract qualified applicants.

In some areas, the competition to entice drivers is stiff. Last month nearly 1,000 of the 50,000 students who take the bus in Chicago were stranded after the first day of school ended because 35 of the district's 1,900 drivers had not shown up for work. Some of the drivers had been lured away by rival companies with the promise of higher pay and better benefits.

Battling the Shortage

The task of transporting more than 24 million children on roughly 400,000 buses nationwide to school each morning has gotten more challenging in the past few years, according to Karen E. Finkel, the executive director of the National School Transportation Association, which represents private school bus contractors.

"Two years ago there was a wake-up call when universally all across the country it became more difficult finding qualified drivers," Ms. Finkel said. Tough new state and federal laws requiring background checks, drug testing, and stricter licensing provisions for school bus drivers have made the hiring process more lengthy.

Ben Reyes, the Chicago school system's chief operating officer, said the crisis there is over, in part because of efforts to speed background checks. School officials now are working their way through a waiting list of 900 applicants.

In other cities, schools are enlisting office staff to cover routes and spending extra on charter buses.

Each morning in Mount Vernon, Ill., outside of Springfield, Bill Beck, the president of a private bus service that has contracted with local schools for more than 50 years, gathers his drivers. The best may see a different route each day in rural and suburban areas, driving wherever they are needed in the 100-mile service area.

"When I got into the bus business we had a lot of farmers, retired truck drivers, factory workers, and housewives looking for part-time work and extra money," Mr. Beck said. "Now truck drivers are staying out on the road so long they are not wanting to drive around a bunch of kids when they get off. Farmers have second jobs, and most households are now two-income families."

Mr. Beck has increased salaries, given attendance awards, and recruited drivers in laundermats and churches.

In Missouri, drivers must obtain a commercial license, demonstrate bus safety, and pass a physical exam. A new state law has eased the shortage somewhat by allowing drivers over age 71 to qualify.

But school transportation officials in many districts do not anticipate a change in the situation any time soon. With low unemployment rates and rising school enrollments in many areas of the country, the job is not the one of choice for enough workers.

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