Niemela says it's been at least five years since he's had a full roster

    It’s safe to say that Crookston School District Superintendent Jeremy Olson’s days are pretty full. On the job for only a few months, there’s a lot on his plate.

    Well, the other day he added another duty to his schedule: Driving a school bus.

    Speaking to the Times, Olson downplayed his time behind the wheel of a school bus, saying he only had to do it once and that the need for him to drive was at least partially spurred by a shortened school week.

    But, still, when the superintendent is driving a school bus, you must be seriously short on drivers. District Buildings, Grounds and Transportation Coordinator Rick Niemela, who drives a school bus quite a bit, along with his primary mechanic and a grounds person, too, in order to fill in consistent gaps, said right now he’s “really struggling” to find drivers.

    “I have a mechanic driving both in the morning and afternoon, and a grounds person going both routes, too, and that could get bad in a hurry if it continues and there’s snow that needs to be moved,” Niemela said.

    Highland School Principal Chris Trostad also finds himself behind the wheel of a school bus quite often.

    “Rick and Chris both do a lot more subbing than I do and we really appreciate both of them for stepping up to the plate,” Olson noted.

    Asked for the last time he can recall having a full roster of drivers and substitute drivers, Niemela figures it has to be at least five years ago, because that’s the last time he can remember not driving bus frequently himself.

    There are 10 bus routes, so a roster of 10 regular drivers would be ideal for Niemela, along with up to a half-dozen substitutes.

Unique job
    Being a school bus driver is often seen as an ideal job for a recently retired person who’s looking to make some money but not have to work a full day. But it’s quirky hours, with at least a two-hour morning route and a two-hour afternoon route, can make it difficult for a person to drive a school bus and also hold down another job. “Right now, most do both routes, but we’re willing to split them and let someone do one or the other if it means they’re going to be consistently available to us,” Niemela said.

    Bus drivers are also responsible for driving to after-school, evening and weekend athletic and activity trips. Filling those duties is more difficult, Niemela said, adding that he and Trostad find themselves doing a lot of athletic and activities-related driving.

    The current starting wage is $20 an hour, but with the limited hours, drivers aren’t eligible for insurance. Drivers get two personal days per year. The top-end pay was bumped up $4 an hour a couple years ago as part of an effort to make the job more attractive, Niemela said.

Not alone
    The Crookston district is far from alone when it becomes to being short of bus drivers. It’s a statewide issue, Olson said, adding that his previous employment stops in other Minnesota districts constantly dealt with the same problem. A workforce shortage in general in Minnesota isn’t helping, he added.

    In addition to the struggles of dealing with a daily split shift, Olson suspects that another factor that keeps potential bus drivers away is the Commercial Drivers License/endorsement requirements.

    “What I am hoping people understand is that we can help interested individuals obtain a CDL and the required endorsements,” Olson stressed. “If someone walks in with a willingness to learn and a desire to work with kids and families, we can help with the rest.”

    Niemela said if anyone wants to learn more, they are welcome to call him at 281-5444.