Oil Patch schools facing bus driver shortage

2011-09-03T23:45:00Z Oil Patch schools facing bus driver shortageBy LAUREN DONOVAN Bismarck Tribune Bismarck Tribune
September 03, 2011 11:45 pm  • 

KILLDEER - Gary Wilz could just as well stand under the sign near the Killdeer school and add a personal plea to the message board above his head.

"Bus drivers needed," the sign said and Wilz, the superintendent, said he's practically begging people to take the job. School's in session and he's still two drivers short of full load for the year.

Steve Holen could stand under the same sign, but in a different town. He's the superintendent in Watford City, where there's not enough drivers to take all the routes.

It could get to be a crowd. Stanley School Superintendent Kent Hjelmstad also is looking for four bus drivers right now, and so is nearby Parshall.

What all the schools have in common is that they're located in North Dakota's pulsating oil zone, where anyone with a commercial driver's license is worth much more than the part-time hourly wage schools pay someone to pick kids up before school and drop them off at home afterward.

Jim Gefroh is Watford City's transportation director, and he's as frustrated as he's ever been.

Because he's short drivers, he's combined two routes. It means about half of all 18 buses are either at or near capacity with kids.

"I don't know what's going to happen. We have had to turn people away and that's a first," he said.

Holen said it's never easy filling bus driving positions, but now the school is challenged by competition from the oil field - where the same license is worth five to 10 times more salary - and downright traffic scary conditions.

"More and more, people are concerned about safety and danger on the roads. It's just one more obstacle to overcome," Holen said.

Wilz said people often drive a bus because they want to help out the school, even though the dairy-farm-like schedule of work every morning, every afternoon - what amounts to a part-time job with a full-time commitment - can be a hassle.

Now, he said, people are afraid to take responsibility for the children's lives with oil and water tankers running all over the countryside.

"They don't know when they might crest the next hill and have a truck coming at them. These are scary times," Wilz said.

If he does get applicants, he's faced with a lengthy wait for proper testing from the North Dakota licensing division because of the demand for commercial drivers' licenses.

Terri Wilhelm, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, said the wait now for the driving portion of a commercial license test is anywhere from 10 to 28 days.

The number of commercially-licensed drivers in North Dakota increased to 47,800 in January, compared with 43,400 people who had that license in 2005, she said.

Hjelmstad said he's short four drivers on the school's 12 routes and like in Killdeer, school staff and a few others are pitching in to fill the void.

"What's happened is the veteran drivers are no longer driving and the younger drivers who would be possible can earn so much more in the oil industry," Hjelmstad.

Hjelmstad said people are worried about the condition of the rural roads and the challenge of competing for that road space with large trucks.

He said the semi drivers tend to be excellent, pulling aside for buses and adhering to the countywide 35 mph speed limit

At Parshall, high school Principal Mark Grueneich, said the school consolidated routes last year because of driver shortage and this year, is just barely hanging on to enough.

"The oil wages account for some of it. It's not the main fact, but it hasn't helped the situation," he said.

Gefroh said his drivers report trying to make left-hand turns off the highway and waiting 15 minutes for oncoming traffic to clear. Or, like recently, waiting as a semi got high-centered trying to turn onto U.S. Highway 85 and traffic backed up 60 vehicles deep - the bus included - until it got cleared.

"It's bumper to bumper out here during shift changes," Gefroh said.

"But the biggest thing (why people don‘t drive) is that a commercial driver's license is pretty valuable right now. They're advertising $60,000 to $80,000 for drivers. We can't meet that," Gefroh said.

He said Watford City school has tried to make it more financially attractive, paying from $13.35 starting to $18.55 an hour for the most tenured driver.

Watford City school district covers 1,740 square miles, and its bus routes, including feeder buses bringing kids in from remote ranches, cover 2,000 miles a day.

Gefroh said most of the recent growth comes from picking up kids who are living in RV camps just outside town.

He estimates 40 to 50 of the 400 or so children who ride the district's buses, come from that kind of setting.

This year, Watford City has 705 students in school. Last school year started with 582 and ended with 640.

"The additional kids is a good thing since a lot of schools have declining enrollments, but it is challenging," said Superintendent Holen.

Road construction throughout the oil zone isn't helping matters, though in the long haul it will make the highways safer.

State Highway 22 north of Killdeer is torn apart over a lengthy 13-mile stretch for a major reconstruction project.

John Suter, a retired Killdeer teacher, is driving that route while the school continues to advertise for a permanent driver.

Suter starts early so he can meet a specially assigned pilot car driver, whose job is to get the Killdeer bus through the construction zone ahead of any other waiting vehicles.

"He meets me at 6:40 a.m. and 3:35 p.m., and escorts us all the way through and waits for me on the other end. It saves us quite a bit of time," Suter said.

Garret Tabor, a senior, said he rides the bus because it's faster than if he had to wait for the usual pilot driver in his own car.

"You can wait 30 to 45 minutes, or it can be an hour and a half," Tabor said.

Wilz said Dunn County Commissioner Bob Kleeman, whose grandchildren ride the bus, organized a meeting with the school and Ames Construction, the road contractor.

"He said, ‘We're going to make this happen.' I can't believe it's working," Wilz said, after accompanying the route one afternoon last week. "There are little miracles and this is one."

Gefroh said state Highway 1806 is destroyed in reconstruction and roads generally are awful. The buses take a pounding.

"We're suffering," he said. "We can't keep up with getting the buses serviced. Those people have all the work they can handle. Anybody, electricians, carpenters, mechanics, they're as scarce as hen's teeth."

So - more than ever it seems - are people willing to drive the kids on the bus.

"We're all in the same boat," said Holen.

(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.)


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(4) Comments

  1. stillhatinnd
    Report Abuse
    stillhatinnd - September 05, 2011 12:47 pm
    Hey Sojo: Ya think that's the only place with a shortage of workers? I suppose all other jobs are full, and this job is all there is!? The ooooonly job in the state.
  2. Sojourner
    Report Abuse
    Sojourner - September 05, 2011 9:29 am
    stillhatinnd said: "There should be ZERO people in this state collecting welfare."

    Meaning what; that a person unemployed for whatever reason can obtain employment driving school bus? Did you folks read the article?

  3. grannymae
    Report Abuse
    grannymae - September 04, 2011 10:03 am
    stillhatinnd said: "There should be ZERO people in this state collecting welfare."

    How true!
  4. stillhatinnd
    Report Abuse
    stillhatinnd - September 04, 2011 7:32 am
    There should be ZERO people in this state collecting welfare.
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