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School bus driver jobs hard to fill in rural Montana

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Posted at 11:56 AM, Sep 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-05 13:56:58-04

CUT BANK - School bus drivers are the newest addition to the list of jobs that are increasingly hard to fill.

The ability to find CDL-certified drivers under the new federal requirements has presented quite a challenge in some rural areas of Montana.

“We have very few bus drivers and we have very few sub drivers. As a matter of fact, we just had one quit two days ago," said Superintendent of Cut Bank Schools Wade Johnson.

The Cut Bank School District has been hit hard by the shortage.

Taking measures to get students to school that are unconventional.

The shortage is so bad, certain extracurricular events must be cancelled — a decision that administration doesn’t want to make.

“We'll do whatever it takes to get kids to and from school. And there are special measures that we're taking from time to time," Johnson said. “There are times when activities have to have to be transported with POV’s (personal vehicles) because of the shortage of bus drivers.”

Twenty-five miles down the road in Shelby, Superintendent Elliott Crump relies on the personal vehicle of one family to transport its children to school.

The family lives in an area where they have eliminated a bus route due to not having a driver.

Fortunately, the school can reimburse the family for its commute to school, yet the funding from the state only covers so much.

The fuel efficiency of the family’s vehicle still leaves their pockets empty.

Shelby Public Schools is looking into other options for the future.

“One of the ways to do that is to have smaller buses," Crump said.

A driver who carries 16 or more passengers — or has a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of 26,001 pounds — needs to have a CDL, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Crump says that he and the district are considering the purchase of buses that transport 15 or fewer students so anyone can drive the bus.

It isn’t something he wants to do, but something he may be forced to do.

“We are trying transport kids to school from their homes. Right now, we are able to do that with three routes.”

Most of Crump’s drivers are farmers who have experience driving large equipment and semi-trucks.

They currently hold the proper credentials to drive a large bus, but retirement is on the horizon.

“Right now, I’m in a situation where I have enough drivers to make it work but I don’t have new people coming down the pipeline to fill those positions," Crump said.

“We may have to increase the funding so that we can pay people more so that it's more attractive to go through the hoops that they have to go through.” Johnson said, adding, “But in reducing the requirements there, that is a very difficult step to take because these guys have 20, 30, 40 kids on their bus. That's a lot of responsibility.”

“I think our legislators, like Senator Daines and Senator Tester, are the ones that need to bring this to the forefront and let them know, hey, this may work in in urban settings, but it doesn't work in Montana.” Crump rounded off.

The new federal CDL requirements were implemented on Feb. 7, 2022, and apply o anyone applying for a class A and class B commercial driver’s license for the first time, anyone upgrading an existing CDL or getting a school bus, passenger, or hazardous endorsement.

There is no minimum hour’s requirement when working towards the written test. The applicant must score and 80% or higher.

For the behind the wheel portion, minimum hours does not come into play, but the driver must pass the behind the wheel component at the liking of a school instructor.

Following the completion of those steps, the driver will earn a certificate to then take the official Commercial Driver’s License test through the Department of Transportation.

Depending on the certification school, classes can range from $2,500 to $8,500 and take up to 20 days to complete based on the student’s experience.

Farmers are exempt from CDL requirements if they stay within a 150-mile radius of their farming operation.

The Attorney General of Montana’s office shared a list of schools that they partner with offering CDL training, including:

  • Helena College
  • Ashley Pacific Northwest
  • First Student Bus Company
  • Highlands College
  • Miles City Community College
  • Missoula College of Technology

MTN News contacted the U.S. Department of Transportation to see if it was aware of the issues posing rural communities, but we have not yet received a response.

For more information about obtaining a Commercial Driver’s License, click here.