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School will open short on teachers, bus drivers

School starts in 12 days for public students in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The School District has more than 35 vacant Certified Teacher positions listed on the hiring website, and 17 teacher aide positions -- although several of those will close after hires are made this week. The staffing shortage is also affecting the school bus system, and there will be fewer routes this year.

The district made a promise last spring to students who ride buses to school.

“We committed to not doing the rotating closures again last year. So, we are going to have reduced bus service, but it will be consistent,” said Ryan Hinton, the district’s Director of Transportation. He says the rotating schedule last winter and spring was too inconsistent. So, this year, he says, buses will run every day, every week. But they won’t get into some neighborhoods or down side roads. Instead, they will pick up larger groups of kids at major points.

“Out of the 130 routes we're contracted for, we need about 115 to keep everything looking pretty normal, like stops where they usually are. But unfortunately, we have 68 routes,” Hinton said.

The drivers are out right now on training and testing runs for those 68 routes.

On the district’s home page, is a button that says “Back to School.” Hinton would like every family whose children ride the bus to click there.

“They definitely need to get on our website and check their bus routes, 'cause they are gonna look different than they have in years past with that reduced route count so they can use our bus look-up-tool that will give them the most current information.”

There is a listing of routes for each school, but Hinton says those are not automatically updated as new information comes in this week.

“We're taking calls constantly to add stops to bus routes. We'll be making slight changes to the routes as we get closer to school, and tweak the routes based on driver feedback and where stops need to be added.”

Hinton says families should stay on top of route changes.

“Prior to the first day of school, they do need to check back to double check their time for when that bus is gonna be there,” he said.

A large post on the district’s Transportation website will click you through to Durham School Services’ jobs. Meanwhile, the district’s Transportation contractor Durham School Services is hiring bus drivers. The starting wage is $26.79 per hour, and Durham pays for Commercial Drivers License training and helps employees get their CDL. The website boasts competitive wages, benefits, flexibility, no evening or weekend work.

Hinton says there are more new drivers starting this week, but there is still a shortage. His office has worked closely with the bus contractor and he says both are concerned about hiring difficulties.

“Trying to fit all the, the pieces together, but also, you know, just get 'em all on the table.”

And this year, the district is trying a novel approach to fill in the other places where there is not scheduled bus route. Using vans. You don’t need as much training or a commercial driver license to drive one.

“So, areas where they're farther out and it's less densely populated. So, there's fewer students and we've had to pull the bus out of those areas. We can serve those students with vans, sending mini vans out to pick up where we don't have the bus to send to them,” he said.

Hinton emphasized the honorable aspects of being a bus driver, whose job has ripple effects for thousands of parents, siblings and teachers.

“It's a profession that has a, a huge impact in our community. If they've ever entertained the idea of becoming a driver, like the time is definitely now,” he said.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.