GRAND FORKS – Despite the city needing to help Grand Forks Public Schools this past school year with busing needs , both the school district and Dietrich Bus Services are optimistic the city won’t need to help this school year.
At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, bus driver shortages and an expired contract with Dietrich created a scramble to find transportation . Cities Area Transit helped out by providing city bus drivers to drive the school routes throughout the school year. The contract with Dietrich was renewed in January.
A joint powers agreement between the school district, the city and Dietrich was completed to address busing needs in case the city needs to step in to help again this school year. However, Brandon Baumbach, business manager with GFPS, said the priority this year is to get students to and from school on a school bus, without the help of Cities Area Transit.
“The current strategy has been to work closely with that vendor and not have to go to the Cities Area Transit busing system for that," Baumbach said. "But they’re a great partner, always willing to help. As we continue to work through the summer and the hiring situations, that partnership has been offered, but that’s not the intention at this point."
Dietrich General Manager Brian Yanish said communicating with the school district and planning for the school year is important. In Grand Forks, he said, staff remains a concern.
“We’re meeting regularly with the district to try and look at any and all options that we haven’t uncovered or thought of," Yanish said, adding that it's important to make the system work with fewer drivers "because, ultimately, that’s the situation we're in."
Spreading the word about open part-time and full-time bus driver positions is a top priority. Yanish said the company is utilizing social media and other methods to advertise. Baumbach said the school district is also helping spread awareness by having buses with signs advertising open positions parked in front of some of the schools.
Within the school district, word is being spread about open positions for any school employee whose day may start later or end earlier and who may be interested in helping out by driving routes.
Along with advertising for the open positions, Yanish said hiring incentives are in place to get more drivers. Among the perks are bonus programs for receiving both the permit and license to become a bus driver.
Yanish, who has been with Dietrich for almost 10 years, has never seen this kind of labor shortage. He attributes the issue partially to the pandemic, plus to semi-retired and retired people – historically a source of bus drivers – mostly choosing not to work after retirement.
“We’ve always had a target market of retired, semi-retired or college-aged students because of the two to four hours a day, midday mornings. It’s not an eight-to-five job and that’s always been a problem,” Yanish said. “That’s the problem with school bus driving as a whole. You can call any transportation director in any city or state across the country, they’re probably going to give you the exact same answer.”
Though there is still a need for more bus drivers, Baumbach said the school district is hoping for a bit of normalcy this year.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to normal after a couple of strange years here that includes even this workforce crunch. But we still have a little ways to go,” Baumbach said.