Driver shortage: IRSD takes operational route in propane bus request

DAGSBORO – Indian River School District has taken the district operational route in addressing its critical bus driver shortage.

Following a presentation by Tyler Bryan, transportation systems analyst for the district, the board of education Sept. 25 approved the district to submit a request to the Delaware Department of Education to purchase three propane-powered buses.

DOE will fund initial basic purchase. The IRSD is responsible for package option costs. IRSD will hold contracts for the routes, receiving 90 percent of funding from DOE. This will all take effect in September 2018.

Shortly after the post-Labor Day start to the 2017-18 year, the district found itself in quandary when four bus contracts were handed in due to driver shortage.

“We have three buses and it’s going to save us money and we’re short drivers,” said IRSD board member Dr. Donald Hattier, who cast the only ‘no’ in the board’s 9-1 approval. “We’re still short drivers. Where are they coming from?”

“We’re going to have think out of the box to recruit them,” said Mr. Bryan. “A lot of it has evolved around the outdated school bus formula. We’re losing bus contractors left and right across the state because they are not making enough money to stay in the game.”

In 2005, Indian River had 75 bus contractors. “We are down to 40. I already know of three that are planning on getting out at the end of the school year,” said Mr. Bryan.

The district’s estimate upfront investment is between $11,500 and $15,000 for three buses. Estimated contract revenue is nearly $65,000 and the yearly operational expense for the three buses is nearly $59,000. Mr. Bryan noted that annual savings on 10 percent district costs from contractors to the district is $2,851.31, which over five years will cover the initial upfront investment.

“So, you are saying that the money that is listed here is going to come from the transportation funding that we are getting from the state?” asked board president Charles Bireley.

“Everything but the initial up-front costs,” Mr. Bryan replied.

Capital, Caesar Rodney and Red Clay districts have taken on more district buses, Mr. Bryan said.

“We are dealing with a nationwide driver shortage,” said Mr. Bryan. “It is not just our district.”

“Tyler, I commend you. I think you are thinking outside the box,” said board member James Fritz.  “I am not saying I don’t like the idea. It’s a great idea. One thing I will say that concerns me is part of the issue that the contractors are having and why they are having a hard time keeping drivers is they are getting paid the same money from the state but their maintenance costs keep going up, fuel costs, insurance … all of their costs are going up. Our costs are going to be going up as well, too. And yet the state is likely, unless they are forced to, keep paying the same rate. My prediction would be that probably in a couple years we are going to be operating a deficit as well.”

“Hopefully, this will call attention to what needs to be done to the formula,” said Mr. Bryan. “In the meantime, we still have to figure out how we are going to transport these students to school.”

“I understand the problem and I know that we have one. But a large part of this rests with the state,” said Dr. Hattier. “If the state can give us this kind of a break why aren’t they trying to work out something with the contractors to give them a little break, too?”

“If the average bus driver is being paid between $50 and $65 by a private contractor … and we are going to pay them $75 (five hours at $15 per hour) we just went into competition as a district with all of the bus drivers out there and I can’t support that,” said Dr. Hattier. “It puts us in competition with our own private contractors. Our private contractors deserve to have this thing looked at by the state and have equitable pay done. And what the state is doing is undercutting them and I think it’s deliberate.”

IRSD currently operates four buses; one on contract, two for S.C.O.P.E. and another with Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E.

Three of the routes that were turned in are in the Georgetown area. The other is in Millsboro, a void Mr. Bryan believes can be filled.

“Our Georgetown area I am very concerned about. Looking long term, we really have no one growing in that area,” said Mr. Bryan. “Other large ones told me the northern end is a concern to them because it is really out their function of where they are operating now. They are hesitant about going to the Georgetown location. Plus, they all are struggling with finding drivers right now.”

“I feel our best choice at this point is ask them (state) for three new buses,” Mr. Bryan said. “The state has gone to a propane pilot. Many districts and contractors are trying out propane buses. One of our contractors is actually part of the pilot study, and now operates I think six propane buses.”

Benefits, Mr. Bryan said, include lower maintenance costs, propane company offers of yearly locked-in fuel rates lower fuel rates and better for the environment.

The proposal was expedited because the district’s narrow window of opportunity with DOE is linked to state bidding. The district’s response was needed the last week of September, Mr. Bryan said.

“This is a major proposal that we have only seen for the first time this evening when we walked in,” said Mr. Bireley.

“I understand that,” said Mr. Bryan. “Unfortunately, our window was short when these we were handed back to us. The problem is they have to get this to state bid. We can’t miss that.”

Propane buses range from 4 to 8 miles per gallon, based on stops, Mr. Bryan said. Diesel mileage is about 8 to 9 mpg. Propane presently is about $1.44 per gallon; diesel is over $2.

“But if it is half the mileage and double fuel used … actually it is going to cost you more. That is just my non-spreadsheet numbers,” said Dr. Hattier.

“If the drivers are now district employees what other costs do we have besides just their salary?” Mr. Fritz asked.

“If they stay under ours, state also provides OEC (Other Employment Costs) costs. We would be getting some reimbursement for OECs,” said Mr. Bryan.

Board member Leolga Wright cast the other no vote. “So, if they are an employee of the district starting when we get the buses and then we get out of that program, are we going to be obligated to find a job for those in another area,” asked Ms. Wright.

Mr. Bryan answered that the district posts the bus driving positions as “temporary, hourly starting the 30th of June.”

“This is a pretty serious issue,” said IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele “I will tell you in about 2020 … that criteria is going to change and it is going to be much more difficult to become a bus driver.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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