The houses popping up along Bass Road underscore how today's school bus driver shortage has the possibility to get worse as Southwest Allen County Schools' enrollment grows.
“Bass Road is putting in hundreds of houses – hundreds of houses – so we've got a lot of growth that we have to prepare for,” Steve Lake, transportation director, told the board Wednesday. “We have to be ready for all those new kids to come in.”
The pandemic has exacerbated a widespread school bus driver shortage, officials have said. Locally, this has led to excessive transportation delays at Fort Wayne Community Schools and temporary route cancellations at SACS.
“Do I see an end to the issue of driver shortage? I don't see an end to that right now,” Lake said during his annual report on transportation. “So, we're going to have to get smarter and be a lot more efficient.”
SACS, which has 59 bus routes, began the academic year five drivers short. Lake said the district was down nine additional drivers Wednesday because of long-term medical leave, COVID-19 infections and personal business.
“If anyone calls in sick, we're in trouble,” Lake said.
Other SACS employees – including three mechanics, an office worker and substitute drivers – help fill the gaps, Lake said. However, he added, that's not always enough, and the district has been forced to cancel routes, sometimes as many as four or five on one day.
SACS has conducted “tons of interviews,” he said, but it takes at least a month to get someone ready to drive. He said it doesn't help that drivers have other options, like working for Amazon.
“Would I rather haul a bunch of boxes that aren't yelling and screaming and sniffling? Some drivers are doing that. They're moving to Amazon,” Lake said. “So we are competing with those companies, and it's hard to compete sometimes.”
SACS is exploring the possibility of a three-tiered system to reduce the number of buses needed at a given time and decrease traffic around Homestead High School, Lake said. He noted South Bend Community School Corp. adopted such a system this year.
“Instead of being short drivers, we should be in a good position,” Lake said.
Currently, SACS operates a two-tier system, with buses first serving the middle and high schools before splitting up to pick up elementary students. Under a three-tier system, Lake said, SACS could put Summit Middle School – which is across from Homestead – on another schedule.
“If we could separate Homestead and Summit on two different schedules, how much traffic could we reduce out here? We're going to cut the traffic down immensely,” Lake said. “If you've been here in the morning, [you know] it is extremely hard to get in here in the morning.”