LAFAYETTE — The school system can now conditionally hire bus drivers who don’t have a high school education, as long as they enroll in the district’s adult education program and make progress toward a high school equivalency diploma.
The School Board on Wednesday revised the bus driver job description, which previously required drivers to have a high school diploma or an equivalency diploma.
After the board’s rejection of the change last month, board President Hunter Beasley proposed a compromise at Wednesday’s meeting — that those without a high school education be hired on condition that the driver would work toward a high school equivalency diploma.
The policy change applies to both permanent bus drivers and substitute drivers and is only in effect until the school system hires an adequate number of full-time and substitute drivers.
More than 280 buses are on Lafayette Parish roads, and currently only three substitute drivers are available to fill any gaps.
At the beginning of the summer, 45 substitute drivers were available, but that number dwindled, as many were hired as full-time drivers to fill vacancies left through retirements and resignations, Damon Evans, the district’s transportation director, said in an email response on Thursday.
He said the policy change should help attract more drivers.
“If the calls from this morning are a measuring stick, we feel it will have a significant impact on available substitute drivers,” Evans said. “Before the change, we had at least 15 inquiries from individuals interested in substitute driving that did not meet the educational requirements but had CDL licenses.”
There’s a dire need now to hire between 17 to 20 substitute drivers to fill in for bus drivers who have either left the school system or are out on medical leave, Brad Duhon, assistant transportation director, told the board before it voted on the policy change Wednesday.
Due to enrollment increases in the district, Duhon said, there’s also a need to hire an additional five bus drivers.
The job requires that drivers possess a commercial driver’s license.
Robin Olivier, the district’s adult education program specialist, said drivers with a CDL who are interested in being hired as a school bus driver but lack a high school education can enroll in the district’s adult education program. If they need additional preparation, she said, they may be referred to the Volunteer Instructors Teaching Adults program.
The adult education learning programs are free, and class times are offered in morning and evening hours to easily accommodate a bus driver’s schedule, Olivier said.
Olivier told board members that the length of time to earn an equivalency diploma depends on the individual. Students who enter adult education programs are tested to determine their educational level. For a student at a lower level, it could take six to eight months, and as short as two months for a student at a higher level, she said.
Olivier said students’ learning is assessed after they’ve completed a certain number of hours in the program.
During Wednesday’s board meeting, Rae Trahan blamed the shortage of bus drivers on the transportation department’s staff. She said she’s heard drivers have left because they’ve been frustrated with their treatment or had not been provided with the proper resources — such as a list of student names and bus stops — to do the job.
“I would like to suggest to staff that they change what they’re doing, and they may retain the drivers,” Trahan said.
Trahan is a former bus driver for the school system. She and board members Tehmi Chassion and Mark Babineaux voted against the policy change. Board member Tommy Angelle abstained from voting on the policy change.
On Thursday, Evans, the transportation department’s director, disputed Trahan’s claim that his department is to blame for the shortage of drivers.
He said in the past 15 months that he’s served as director, he’s recruited 50 new substitute bus drivers and only five of them weren’t promoted to full-time positions following retirements and resignations this summer. He said most resignations have been due to pay issues “and none have been over being disgruntled, to my knowledge.”
Evans said all drivers are required to maintain current route reports with turn-by-turn directions on the bus, and copies are also available in the transportation department.
Lafayette’s driver shortage isn’t unique. Transportation directors from neighboring school districts say they also are struggling to fill substitute driver positions.
“It’s a statewide problem because our state association says the same thing. Everybody’s having problems with subs,” said Raymond Noel, transportation director for Iberia Parish Schools.
Noel said he has 130 full-time drivers and eight substitutes.
In rural districts, there are more roads to cover and schools are spread out in different pockets of the parish.
Vermilion Parish has fewer students than Lafayette Parish, but has five main geographic areas that it covers with 88 permanent drivers and five substitutes. Of those five substitutes, only one or two are willing to substitute on any route, said Ken Small, transportation director in Vermilion Parish.
Small said that, ideally, he’d like to staff at least three sub drivers in each geographic pocket to cover the Kaplan area, Gueydan area, Abbeville area, Erath area and the northern part of the parish, which includes Maurice.
“Another thing you have to think about is if these subs don’t work, it’s hard to keep them around if they’re not making money,” Small said. “It’s a juggling act, and we do our best.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.