By Leah Williams
The books may have been put away for another year, the last routes have been run, but the summer months have many concerned about local school transportation in the coming school year.
Representatives from local bus companies say they are experiencing a “crisis” in gaining new interest in fulfilling their regular routes. Both said they are in dire need of at least one more driver before the next school year begins.
“We are in search of bus drivers constantly,” Greg Schmale, co-owner of Schmale Bus Service, said, adding that the interest in the positions has been dwindling over the last five years.
“We used to have people come in all the time, and that is not happening.”
Representatives from Schmale and Sherman bus services state that the lack of having bus drivers has had a detrimental effect on fulfilling their commitments to the schools.
“We have great employees,” secretary Cindy Schmale said. “But they are getting older, and some of them want to quit but they feel sorry for us. They know if they quit we might not have enough people to fill the obligations.”
Tammy DuRietz of Sherman Bus Service said her company delivers routes for Nashville, Pinckneyville, Waltonville and Tamaroa. She said it is a similar situation in each district, with one route having to be eliminated because of the lack of drivers. This creates a longer route, meaning more students are having to ride longer before they are dropped off at their destinations.
The problem is compounded when the school contacts the bus services to schedule field trips or visiting ball games, and the services are unable to comply because of a lack of drivers.
While the ideal candidate for the position would already have a CDL license, Greg and Cindy Schmale said that the services would be willing to help anyone who is interested apply with the state and receive the proper protocols needed to become licensed. Others who may be interested are stay-at-home parents and others who are looking for part time work that is also rewarding.
And some but not all of the trouble with getting school bus drivers seems to be a problem compacted by strict regulations from the state, which can be at least a couple months to successfully complete. The representatives say the testing requires the operator to nearly be a master in mechanics, and many have to retake the test before they are able to be licensed.
“You are supposed to have this many drivers and by god you better have it,” Cindy Schmale siad. “But you can put somebody in there that is not licensed. You can’t just grab somebody on the street and say hey you are going to drive.”
“It’s kind of one of those deals where you are robbing Peter to pay Paul,” DuRietz said.
Still, with the added challenges from the state, the Schmales and DuRietz said the services are willing to work with quality candidates during the transition process and help them get the qualifications needed to start their routes.
Cindy Schmale said she believes that the situation does not exist only in Southern Illinois but in other places as well.
“I think this is a nationwide problem,” she said. “We have a nephew who in central illinois and everywhere he has went they have had trouble. Another nephew who is getting married to an educator down in Florida, they are having trouble. Every time you go into Centralia there are signs.”
Nashville Middle School Principal Mike Brink said the local struggle to obtain drivers is quite “concerning” to the school district. He said it would be an “absolute shame” to lose the company.
“It’s pretty reassuring to know that when the bus leaves our parking lot, that the drivers know the name of each kid, where they live and in most cases they know the parents,” Brink said. “They take a lot of pride in that.”
Brink said he has ridden all of the school routes multiple times and knows the quality of service that is provided by the local bus service. Some of the students on the route ride for nearly half hour or 40 minutes before they arrive home.
“This community has been very fortunate to have this kind of bus company here,” he said. “I know some people take for granted school transportation but when you are transferring kids this far out and all over the county like we do, it would be a huge loss if they ever decided that they just couldn’t keep going.”
Greg and Cindy Schmale and DuRietz said that anyone who is interested in becoming a school bus driver is sure to find that the work comes with a lot of adoration from its passengers.
“The little ones fall in love with their bus drivers,” Cindy Schmale said, while DuRietz added: “There are some that don’t even want to go home.”