Flossmoor School District 161 may have to get creative in how it transports students to school this fall, with a shortage of bus drivers poised to disrupt a return to normal routes.
“Transportation is going to continue to be kind of a nightmare for a while,” Associate Superintendent Frances LaBella told the district’s board of education during a meeting held Monday, June 28.
At the heart of the issue is that Kickert, the district’s transportation provider, informed the district it does not currently have enough drivers to handle all of the routes it typically runs. LaBella said the district anticipated starting summer school with a “full load” of buses at 20 but is running it with nine.
“That worked for us, because a lot of parents didn’t want to put their kids on the bus yet and so on,” LaBella said. “But it’s leading us to questions about what the fall is going to look like.”
LaBella said she spent “quite a bit of time” on the phone with Kickert’s parent company, Cook-Illinois Corporation, trying to learn more about what the shortage will mean going forward.
“They’re concerned — seriously concerned,” LaBella said. “They do not have drivers. They just do not have them.”
LaBella said the company has gone so far as to contact every employee who has resigned or retired in the last 30 years but remains eligible to rehire in an attempt to get them back. The company also has increased hourly rates to $19 per hour for drivers willing to return. LaBella said the company recently got 13 applicants, which she called “very encouraging,” but that may only translate to four or five drivers.
She added that she is “very grateful” for a recent shift of school start times the district made that gives drivers an extra 10 minutes between the schools they serve. That should help, she said. By the end of the week, she was hoping to have more information about how many drivers the district can anticipate in the fall.
“At that point, [we’re] going to start trying to figure out what it would take to transport this district with the number of buses that we have,” LaBella said. “Pretty much no crazy idea is off the table.”
She said that could include asking how many parents are actually planning to use the buses, widening walk zones and/or running two waves of buses to transport students to Parker Junior High School. Parker is the biggest concern, LaBella said, and the district could bring some of those students in earlier before running a second wave of routes. But then administrators would have to figure out how to supervise students who get to the building early.
Board Secretary Christina Vlietstra asked if the district knows how many of the company’s former drivers are unemployed and potentially receiving benefits that could lapse in September.
“Oh, there’s a lot of them,” LaBella said.
Vlietstra said she wondered if some of those employees might come back if the benefits situation changes early in the school year. LaBella said the hope is that the district will have its full slate of drivers and routes when the school year starts in August, but they have to plan for a possible shortage to start the year. And the information coming soon from Kickert would only be a best guess about the fall, LaBella added.
“Nothing is off the table at this point,” she said. “We’re going to do everything we can. We’ll make it work. We always do. It’s just going to be a little challenging this summer.”
‘The best news ... in a long time’
During her May financial report, LaBella announced “essentially, the best news I’ve had in a long time.”
LaBella said property tax collections are up for the district while refunds are down. That puts District 161 in a great spot to hit its budget for property taxes this year. With expenses for June already out the door, LaBella said the district is at “about break even” as the fiscal year ends.
“I believe that we will end this year in the black,” she said.