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Columbus Considers Partnership With COTA Amid Nationwide Bus Driver Shortage

A COTA bus in downtown Columbus in May.
David Holm
A COTA bus in downtown Columbus in May.

Schools nationwide are experiencing a shortage in bus drivers, and Columbus City Schools is no exception to the trend. That’s why transportation officials in the district proposed busing high schoolers on COTA buses and K-8th grade students on school buses in the fall.

There is a shortage of bus drivers across the United States. According to the nonprofit Education Week, a March 2021 survey showed that 80% of school transportation officials consider the bus driver shortage to be an issue.

Columbus City Schools Transportation Operations Manager Robert Weinheimer agrees.

“Anyone can do a simple Google search on bus driver shortages across the nation,” Weinheimer said. “In our industry, bus driver shortages are a real thing.”

He was speaking with the Columbus City School board on Zoom. He says there are several barriers to bolstering the number of bus drivers in the district. One is the hiring process practices for those with or without commercial driver’s licenses is cumbersome.

“A typical non-CDL driver or CDL job could maybe take a week at most to onboard a new employee,” Weinheimer said. “Whereas a CDL employee takes up to seven weeks to come on board and be a certified school bus driver.”

In addition to hiring issues, Weinheimer told the board that a bill would strain the district’s busing resources even further.

“And finally, House Bill 110 does pose some future considerations whereas K-8 charter non-public students will be put on a yellow bus if this passes,” Weinheimer said. “We would have to deliver and pick up children within 30 minutes of the end or beginning of that school’s school day.”

A nationwide bus driver shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, hiring difficulties and legislation requiring public schools to pick up charter students in a certain frame all contribute to the district’s desire to contract with COTA.

Continuing A Pilot Program With COTA

Columbus City Schools transportation officials argue that extending the partnership with COTA would simply help lighten the load placed on drivers who work for the district. Columbus City Schools hopes to hire more drivers, determine whether changing bus routes is feasible, and encourage parents who don’t need public transportation for their children to opt out.

“If with our staffing model it’s hard to hit 600, let’s look at our routing and see if we can better run our routes, which require less people, all the while recruiting drivers to build up that staffing,” Weinheimer said.

Weinheimer said during the pandemic, parents indicated that they’d gladly opt their children out of public transit to open seats for kids in need.

Columbus City Schools bought 8,000 COTA passes for eighth grade and high school students to use until August 25. So far, more than 622 students used COTA transit through the pass system. Students have taken more than 16,000 trips since the pilot launch in March.

Plans Not Yet Solidified

COTA provided a statement to WOSU saying a fall partnership with Columbus City Schools has not been finalized, but that it’s enthusiastic about the possibilities for the upcoming school year. Widening this program could cost $5 million.

CCS Talent Acquisition Director Terri Trigg said in the meantime, the district is changing up its recruitment strategies. The district will be advertising on the radio through Urban One and iHeartMedia. It also plans to create more economic incentives to join the team.

“We are asking to increase the bus driver trainee pay from $11 per hour to $18.50 per hour to make us more competitive in the market place,” Trigg says.

Columbus City Schools currently has 612 active bus drivers and 33 on a leave of absence. The district says it needs more than 150 additional drivers to make up for the high rate of people calling off work – 10 to 20% on any given day.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.