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Trying To Fill The Bus: Crunch Time As School Districts Search For Drivers

(Photo by Christina Estes - KJZZ)
Gary Heckathorne drives a bus for the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Some Phoenix-area school districts are struggling to find enough bus drivers before their new year starts.

At the Paradise Valley Unified School District’s transportation hub, Gary Heckathorne points to a bus, “Second one, 191.”

Number 191 is his mobile office. During his six years behind the wheel, Heckathorne has racked up thousands of hours in the district where more than 7,100 students rely on buses. 

“A very well-oiled machine is what it is,” Heckathorne said.

But, the machine needs some help. 

“This is probably the worst year and I hate to say that,” said Sharon Mang, administrative assistant to the director of transportation. 

During a job fair held last Friday she said the district was looking for 19 drivers.

“I’m not quite sure what the problem is. We pay $14.27 an hour for our drivers. It’s not the lowest in the area.” 

The Paradise Valley Districtis not the only one hiring. Phoenix’s Washington Elementary District is about 15 drivers short while Phoenix Union High Schoolneeds 13. Scottsdale Unifiedwants another five or so while Tempe Union Highis looking for four.

When Heckathorne took the job, maneuvering a 40-foot bus was the least of his worries. He was more concerned about handling the kids. The secret, he said, is not ordering them to do something, it’s asking them to help. 

“Hold it down back there so I can hear my radio,” is how he usually gets them to quiet down. 

“As long as you do that for me then we won’t have any problems,” he said. “Otherwise you’ll be sitting in the angel seat.” 

The "angel seat" is up front, right next to Heckathorne.

If districts can’t fill all the drivers’ seats with new hires, they’ll call on substitute drivers, trainers and other qualified staffers. 

A typical bus driver works a split shift – usually three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. Most districts guarantee 30 hours per week which makes a driver eligible for full-time benefits. Starting pay varies per district with the average falling around $14 per hour. 

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As a senior field correspondent, Christina Estes focuses on stories that impact our economy, your wallet and public policy.