(From left) Meghan Fridley and her daughter Ambrosia, 7, walk the new route to where the school bus will pick up Ambrosia for school.
(From left) Meghan Fridley and her daughter Ambrosia, 7, walk the new route to where the school bus will pick up Ambrosia for school. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On June 29, Meghan Fridley received a letter from Northside Independent School District alerting her that her soon-to-be second grader Ambrosia would no longer have bus transportation to Raba Elementary School, located about a mile-and-a-half away.

Fridley, a single mom living on San Antonio’s far West Side, was dismayed. To walk to school, Ambrosia would have to cross Westover Hills Boulevard, a busy street Fridley said presents safety concerns.

“I didn’t feel comfortable with my daughter crossing it or with any other child crossing it,” she said. “You’ve got to walk fast past crosswalks, and even then, drivers go fast.”

Fridley contacted Northside ISD’s transportation department and learned that state law stipulates districts provide transportation for students living two miles or more away from their campus. For the most part, students living inside the two-mile boundary have to make their own arrangements. In rare cases, when hazards – flood risks, inadequate walkways, traffic dangers, wild animals, and high-crime areas – are present on the path to school, a district may choose to provide additional transportation.

When Fridley first contacted the district, Northside officials said there was little they could do. Fridley decided to create an online petition and called on her neighbors to contact the district and voice their concerns.

As a result, Northside Deputy Superintendent for Administration Ray Galindo contacted parents in Fridley’s neighborhood on July 18, saying the district had reversed its decision and would provide busing, this time from a bus stop at the neighborhood’s clubhouse.

School districts nationwide are facing bus driver shortages that put a strain on transportation decisions, especially in large and growing districts like Northside ISD. Galindo’s letter detailed reasons why Northside made the initial decision to stop bus service.

“Each summer a committee convenes to review bus routes, and, when possible, eliminate services where construction improvements have been made such that there is an adequate route for students to walk to and from school,” Galindo wrote. “Although every summer routes are eliminated, other routes are added to accommodate for district growth. The number of routes that are added each summer far outweighs the number of routes that are eliminated.”

Perhaps no district has been hit by the bus driver shortage as severely as Northside ISD, where new campuses open every year, and the student population continues to grow. Prior to the start of the 2018-19 academic year, the district still had about 50 driver vacancies for its total roster of 700 drivers.

A Northside Independent School District school bus is parked at Tom C. Clark High School.
A Northside Independent School District school bus is parked at Tom C. Clark High School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We have to resolve this driver issue because we are at a breaking point,” Northside Transportation Director Rafael Salazar said.

San Antonio’s second largest school district, North East ISD, too, has felt the strain of a driver shortage. One week before the start of the school year, NEISD had 17 openings. Jack De Forrest, executive director the district’s transportation department, said strict qualifications make hiring bus drivers difficult.

“It takes five contacts to get one employee,” De Forrest said. “Some people will lose interest when they find out that they actually have to drive with children in the bus. … We lose people who discover that all of our drivers are split-shift, part-time employees.”

Beyond the basic responsibilities of the job, districts have high expectations for potential job candidates. Drivers are held to the same standard as any classroom teacher, because they spend unsupervised time with children. In addition, drivers have to pass a physical that evaluates hearing, eyesight, blood sugar levels, medical history, and drug use.

Once drivers are hired, De Forrest said, districts still have to grapple with regular turnover from retirements. One-third of NEISD’s fleet of drivers is comprised of veterans, and the average age is just under 58. For this reason, NEISD has to hire about 100 drivers each summer to maintain a steady roster of 300.

Location can also prove to be a hiring challenge. Salazar said staffing levels can vary based on the location of the district’s bus terminals. At the terminal located in the northernmost part of the district, Northside has trouble with vacancies because fewer job candidates live nearby.

“In the south, we do just fine, because plenty of people live nearby,” Salazar said. “The challenge is getting [drivers] in the north and in the Helotes area. That is where we struggle.”

Without a sufficient pool of candidates to hire, other employees step in to fill the gaps. De Forrest said all full-time NEISD transportation employees maintain the credentials and standards necessary to pick up a route.

De Forrest estimates that in the last three years, when the bus driver shortage has been especially taxing, most of the 50 full-time employees on his staff have covered a morning or afternoon route for the district in addition to completing their other job responsibilities.

“When our staffing is down … everyone is working a lot of hours, and we are spending a lot of money on overtime,” De Forrest said.

At times when staffing is strained, students and parents may notice the overburdened bus service.

Districts implement various tactics to fit in more routes and deliver more students on time with limited resources. NEISD and Northside both employ tiered routes, which uses the same bus to drop off kids at an elementary, then a middle, and then a high school. This can sometimes push forward the time younger students get to campus or delay the arrival for the older students.

“This year, we are dropping off at the elementary school at 6:50 so we can get [students] in for breakfast, and then going to the middle school, and then the high school is getting stuck with delays,” Salazar said. “Kids can arrive late because of traffic patterns which pushes back picking up students. … We had some kids missing some school last year, with the kids getting there at 9 and the bell rang at 8:55 and then kids have to pick up breakfast and run to their locker.”

Districts also use double runs, which means a bus picks up a load of kids to drop off at the end of the day from one campus, and then returns to that campus to pick up and drop off another busload of students. The double run can push back a drop-off time so students spend more time on campus and get home later.

Parents often come to Salazar and De Forrest with individual concerns about their own students’ busing situation. Both transportation officials told the Rivard Report that families frequently ask why their student doesn’t get bus service when they pay taxes.

In NEISD, buses use about 4,000 gallons of fuel per day driving roughly 17,000 miles. Last year, one mile driven cost the district $4.62, De Forrest said. On a daily basis, NEISD spent close to $80,000 on transportation.

“When people say, ‘Can’t you just send a bus?,’ [I ask] who is going to pay for it?’” De Forrest said. “What program is budgeted to pay for it? Because buses are expensive.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.