OLATHE, Kan. — The Olathe School District may soon consider implementing rolling blackouts in bus services as the district struggles to maintain enough bus drivers.
On Thursday, Deputy Superintendent John Hutchison made a presentation to the Olathe School Board outlining how the national bus driver shortage is affecting the district overall.
Currently the district has 151 bus drivers, but needs roughly 187 drivers to cover all routes and cover routes for drivers who are out sick on any given day.
“In our AM routes we are averaging about 11 middle school, high school routes that are arriving right at the bell time or up to 30 minutes late,” Hutchison said. “We are averaging three elementary double routes arriving at 8:10 a.m. to 8:20 a.m., that’s ten to 20 minutes late. In the PM it gets even more complicated.”
In the afternoon, seven high school and middle school buses are currently arriving 35 minutes after dismissal to pick up kids. Three middle school and high school bus routes have been combined with another route to meet transportation needs. Hutchison said five elementary routes are also arriving at the school roughly 20 minutes after dismissal to pick kids up.
Currently the district is averaging between 140 and 160 late buses each month. While the bus driver shortage isn’t a problem exclusively affecting Olathe schools, Hutchison said the district does have unique factors that may be making the problem more complicated.
One big factor is that the district offers transportation for all students attending the 21st Century Academy.
“In order for us to provide equal access to all of our academies, to all our student body, we transport anybody to their academy,” Hutchison said. “We are running kids from corner to corner in our district, which is not a very efficient way to run a transportation system, but it’s a commitment we made to the academies.”
While neighboring school districts like Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley have reduced services for paid bus routes based on distance, Olathe has not put any additional limits on its paid rider program.
Hutchison said the district also offers safety variances and transportation for students attending Heads Start or Jumpstart programs.
As the school year progresses into the colder months of the year, Hutchison expressed concerns about maintaining current staffing levels.
“As it becomes consistently cold, with that more senior staff that the industry relies on, we know we tend to see more absences and we don’t see that driver pool,”Hutchison said.
Currently the district offers free transportation for students who live 2.5 miles or further from their school and a paid option for students living less than 2.5 miles away from their school.
Based on the current driver shortage, Hutchison said the district is now considering short-term interventions including creating a rolling blackout protocol for paid riders. Under a rolling blackout option, instead of informing parents day-of that their child’s bus may not be in service, the district would schedule select bus routes to be consistently out of service on specific days of the week.
“We’re going to have to develop some long-term solutions, because this is not a short-term situation. The industry believes it is going to be long-term, mainly because of that retirement population that is not entering into that workforce,”Hutchison said.
Superintendent Dr. Brent Yeager said Friday parents of bus riders will receive an email further explaining the current transportation challenges.
“It is possible that even before January we may have to go to some rolling blackouts and some of those kinds of things. We just want to proactively communicate with those families that there may be an impact,” Yeager said.
Yeager said whether students ride the bus to school or not, all students in the district are being impacted by the driver shortage through limited access to buses for field trips, sporting events and student activities.
A districtwide survey will be sent out on Dec. 7 to collect feedback from the community on district transportation. Anyone interested in applying to become a bus driver for the Olathe School District can find more information on the DS Bus Lines website.