By Kati Weis

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (CBS4) – While schools are trying to prioritize learning in person, getting those students to class has become a challenge this year. Districts around Colorado – and the nation – are struggling with a shortage of school bus drivers, and in Jeffco Public Schools, the situation has become so dire, it’s bringing some employees to tears.

(credit: CBS)

Jeffco is currently short 71 bus drivers – 20% of its driving workforce. As a result, managers and staff who aren’t bus drivers are filling in to drive bus routes on top of their normal eight-hour work days, forcing many employees to average 14-hours of work daily.

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One of those managers is Trish Trujillo, a transportation supervisor for Jeffco Public Schools.

“It’s been hard, because I’m a mother of two young kids,” Trujillo said with tears in her eyes. “I want to be there for my kids, and I don’t want to miss anything, and I’m missing a lot… I am dedicating so much of my life to my work.”

Trujillo says some days she spends up to two hours collaborating with staff on how to re-work routes to ensure that all students are taken home.

Then while Trujillo is out driving buses, Jeffco Public Schools Director of Transportation Greg Jackson is doing her job.

“They’re depleting their terminal every day, just to cover routes, so myself and some folks in my office, we’re helping by trying to do some help and support behind the scenes, dispatching,” Jackson said. “When certain emergencies pop up, we’re communicating and we’re contacting directors, we’re contacting schools and parents, we’re also doing a lot of the phone calls that are coming in.”

Jackson says for the last few years they’ve seen a decline in drivers, but the pandemic worsened the issue to the most egregious situation thus far.

He believes many people don’t want to comply with the mask policy while driving the bus, and worries federal unemployment benefits have been a deterrent for people to want to get back to work.

(credit: CBS)

He also says many people sign up with the district to get their commercial driver’s license – or CDL – for free, then leave to work for a higher-paying trucking company. CDL training and licensing is a benefit for which many private companies won’t pay, but Jeffco has been offering for years.

The CDL licensing can cost up to $5,000, Jackson says.

“We have people who come here and they will work for us during the training portion of it, and then make a decision to step away, or they either don’t show up to the terminal on the first day, or they work for a month or so like that and then they kind of make a decision that they’re going to walk away,” Jackson said. “It’s a huge budgetary strain.”

Just this year alone, Jackson says the district has hired 54 drivers that were brought in and completed training, but the district only retained 11 to 12 of those people.

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As a result, Jackson says Jeffco Public Schools is evaluating ways to rework bus driver contracts, so that issue doesn’t keep happening.

The district has even hired third-party contractors to get about 40 disabled students to and from school, but the district still desperately needs more bodies in driver seats of its yellow buses.

“We are doing everything we can to try to hire drivers,” Jackson said. “We’re not purposely trying to be late, we’re not purposely trying to inconvenience anyone, we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.”

Jackson says he personally receives up to 75 complaints a day – both from parents and fellow school administrators – about the bus situation.

He and Trujillo are pleading for patience.

“I don’t know how we do it, but we do we figure it out,” Trujillo said. “We are covering what we have, and we may run late, but just know that we are on our way and we’re doing everything we can to get there.”

Jeffco Public Schools is not alone in its shortage. The Boulder Valley School District is also short 71 drivers. Douglas County Public Schools is short 54, and Denver Public Schools is short 52.

(credit: CBS)

Boulder has increased its bus driver salaries to $20.60 an hour, and is offering a one-time cash incentive of $1,000 to any BVSD employee that refers a bus driver candidate that is hired, completes training, and remains on the job with BVSD for 90 working days. Additionally, bus driver candidates who already have their CDL can receive a cash signing bonus of $2,500, and those without a CDL can receive a $1,000 bonus.

In Denver, DPS is offering a $1,500 sign-on bonus to applicants without a CDL, and those with a CDL will receive $2,000.

Jackson says Jeffco is evaluating implementing a bonus program, as well.

“We’re exploring some options to be able to do some type of aggressive direction to do some type of incentive, more for us I think is going to be one the retention, retention type bonus to try to keep people engaged, keep people happy and keep people here,” Jackson said. “One thing I’ve been really pushing for the last couple of years is a recruitment bonus for our existing employees here in our department, they’re the best people in the world who know what the day-to-day is when it comes to being a driver.”

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If you would like to apply to work as a bus driver at Jeffco Public Schools, click here.

Kati Weis