By Everett Brazil, III
The Newkirk Herald Journal
NEWKIRK — An important part of the local school system is a quality transportation program, which includes bus routes that transport kids to and from school, as well as transportation for extracurricular activities. A shortage of bus drivers puts limitations on the district, as they must find alternative drivers to fill those roles. Newkirk Public Schools (NPS) is suffering through its own driver shortage, but with safe drivers behind the wheel, they are working diligently to make sure all kids are transported where they need to go.
A major problem with the driver shortage is the extensive requirements for driver training. Drivers must obtain a Class B license with the school and passenger transport endorsement. The licenses can be obtained at career tech centers across the state, including Pioneer Technology Center (PTC) in Ponca City.
“They allow drivers to get a Class A and/or Class B driver’s license,” said NPS Superintendent Scott Kempenich. “Class A is for commercial, and Class B is for buses.”
In previous years, the certification was obtained at schools like PTC in a 24-hour training program. Due to extensive changes in the law through the U.S. Department of Transportation, they are making it now 80 hours to receive bus driver certification. That new law took effect last winter.
“In February 2022, the federal government changed the requirements to get a Class A and Class B driver’s license,” Kempenich said. “The training changed from 24 hours of training to 80 hours of training.”
Several new drivers quickly stepped up to the plate to fill roles, including superintendent office employees Michelle Vap and Debbie Usry, as well as Kempenich himself, to receive the needed training before the changes took place.
“We had five drivers get certified prior to the change in requirements in February,” Kempenich said.
Sensing a decline in driver interest, the district worked to provide incentives to receive training, the most important of which was a $1,000 stipend, paid out in two increments of $500.
“Now we’re paying a $1,000 stipend for any new driver who is going to get certification, $500 for completion of the CDL, and $500 for their first year as a driver,” Kempenich said. He added that all fees for the training would also be paid by NPS.
Even with the recent trainees and incentives, the district is still short-handed regarding drivers, both for routes as well as extracurricular activities, such as band, choir, FFA and athletics, among other activities.
“We need six full-time drivers for route positions, and that is what we’re lacking right now,” said David Rush, NPS director of transportation. “We’re having to use our regular staff with their regular jobs, which takes away from their work, their responsibilities, all the focus on their job.”
The lack of drivers is only compounded by those extracurricular activities.
“Thursday (Nov. 10) we had three buses going three different directions for basketball, and still had to have the routes,” Rush said.
The district is taking several steps to filling those positions, including the driver stipend, as well as trying to connect to other drivers in the area, which is proving difficult.
“We’re reaching out to everyone we can but we’re competing with all the other schools around here,” Rush said. “It is hard to get Ponca City bus drivers in Newkirk, so we’re reaching out to local people.”
Part of that is the stipend itself, which is hoped to entice potential new drivers to apply for NPS, as well as increasing pay to $14.50 per hour.
As for the shortage itself, there has been a lack of drivers in the past, but with community support, the school is working through the problem.
“We’re making it work, we have so many people helping out,” Kempenich said.