On school days, Steve Lake and his Southwest Allen County Schools staff look at the clock with anticipation.
They always have the same question: Will any school bus driver call in sick or otherwise be unable to pick up students?
Bus drivers remain in short supply for the district, which has five open routes and is facing additional resignations this month, Lake told the school board Tuesday.
Lake is transportation director.
The situation isn't new or unique to Southwest Allen.
In a driver shortage study two years ago, the National Association for Pupil Transportation found that dealing with a lack of bus drivers was the No. 1 problem or concern for 52 percent of respondents.
About 70 percent believed the trend for having a bus driver shortage was getting worse, the study found.
Southwest Allen operates 46 general education routes and nine special education routes, Lake said. Some buses are running at full capacity, he said, noting that's three – not two – students to a seat.
“You put three (high school students) in a seat, and it's uncomfortable,” Lake said.
The district's growth makes the matter even more pressing, he said.
State enrollment figures indicate Southwest Allen has 7,471 students this academic year compared with 7,052 students in 2014-15.
“I've got to get ahead of it,” Lake said.
He's trying. Recruitment efforts include placing posters in every school, advertising openings on a huge outdoor sign in a high-traffic area, speaking to various groups and seeking candidates through a jobs website – an effort that generated zero applications, he said.
To reward dedicated drivers, Lake would like to offer a program in which they could be paid for unused personal days.
“We should,” board Vice President Tom Rhoades said.
Lake is also working with the district's business manager about possibly restructuring the bus driver pay system to build equity. Whereas some neighboring districts offer hourly rates, Lake said, Southwest Allen considers mileage.
Such a change wouldn't decrease anyone's pay, Lake said.
“I'd be crazy,” he said. “Getting drivers is hard enough already.”