‘We have vacancies right now’: St. Johns County School District searches for qualified bus drivers

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — For the St. Johns County School District and families, a safe ride to school is a top priority.

The district is working to tackle a hurdle that has been faced across the country: the need to hire more bus drivers.

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In just eight days, students will be packing up their backpacks to kick off the new school year.

Al Pantano is the director of transportation for St. Johns County School District.

“We are staffed adequately to get our children to and from school every day,” Pantano said. “But when you have 316 school bus operator positions, we’re always in need of the best-qualified people to serve the kids.”

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Pantano said his department would ideally like to have 316 bus operators. Currently, it has 256 bus operators.

When it comes to routes, Pantano said there will be 237 buses en route on the first day of school. That’s where the department was at the end of the last school year.

Pantano said the department aims to have 255 school bus routes.

Finding quality people to get behind the wheel is the goal.

“When a person that operates a boss turns that key, no one wants someone behind the wheel that’s not fit to drive,” Pantano said.

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He said you can’t put buses on the road that you can’t sustain.

“We’re going to be very conservative to start,” Pantano said. “We’ll grow it as we need to over time and get it to where it needs to be.”

The transportation department will be adjusting internal operations to help meet the district’s needs.

“We average 10 to 12% absenteeism on most days, and that’s consistent with all the state figures and various departments,” Pantano said. “So we’ve accounted for that in our numbers.”

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There may be double runs for operators and limited field trips during school hours, until the district can get to that desired staffing.

“There’s nothing we do with these children that’s worth pushing it to the limit to being unsafe,” Pantano said. “It’s better for a bus to be late than unsafe.”

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Pantano said the pay for operators starts at $16.65/hour and goes all the way up to around $25/hour.

There are also recruiting incentives, with training that is paid and conducted in-house.

“After 12 hours of driving a school bus that day, enough is enough,” Pantano said. “So we have to be careful with some of that. These people are absolutely tireless and selfless. They genuinely care about these children.”