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Manatee School District addresses bus driver shortage and bus upgrades

During the driver shortage, Myakka teachers have volunteered to learn to operate a bus.

The School District of Manatee County continues to have a bus driver shortage as the school year begins. The district has 106 drivers for its 104 routes. (File photo)
The School District of Manatee County continues to have a bus driver shortage as the school year begins. The district has 106 drivers for its 104 routes. (File photo)
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Annemarie Bachman, the art teacher at Myakka City Elementary School, constantly sees busses pull up late to campus.

A shortage of bus drivers complicates matters for the School District of Manatee County when it comes to handling all the routes.

Bachman said students need to rush to get breakfast and miss out on opportunities to socialize with their peers. It also causes stress on the students to be in such a hurry to get to their first class.

It's stress all around because Bachman said teachers are stressed as well because they know the students are in a rush mode.

Without adequate staffing for bus drivers, individual busses have longer routes and a lot more stops. Increasing traffic on State Road 70 also has compounded the problems.

The district has consider keeping a bus at Myakka City Elementary School so it doesn't have to make the trip from the Matzke Support Center in Bradenton to Myakka City and back each day. 

The bus would only serve the elementary school, helping to ensure students arrive at school on time and get home at a reasonable time. 

But who is going to drive it?

With the bus driver shortage, the district has asked Myakka City Elementary School's staff if anyone would be interested in getting a commercial driver’s license to drive the bus, in addition to their other duties. 

That’s where Bachman, physical education teacher Joe Szewczyk, and STEM teacher Kristie Benton come into the picture. The three teachers have volunteered to drive the bus. 

Joe Szewczyk, a physical education teacher at Myakka City Elementary School, has volunteered to go through training to receive a commercial driver's license so he can drive a bus for students at his school. (Photo by Liz Ramos)
Joe Szewczyk, a physical education teacher at Myakka City Elementary School, has volunteered to go through training to receive a commercial driver's license so he can drive a bus for students at his school. (Photo by Liz Ramos)

Benton said having a familiar face drive that bus would be a plus. Those teachers would have two different ways to build their foundations with the students.

Szewczyk said becoming a bus driver for Myakka City Elementary School not only would help the community, but would allow him to give up his second job as an Uber driver.

“I could drive the bus and be home by 6 p.m. rather than staying out until 9, doing my second job,” Szewczyk said. “We get out of school at 3:15 p.m. and these buses don’t get here until 4 p.m. sometimes. These kids aren’t getting home until maybe 5:30. They already get picked up at 6:30-7 a.m. That’s a long day for adults, nevermind for a 5-year-old.”

Szewczyk said having teachers as bus drivers also will give the students and the school more opportunities to go on field trips.

Having a bus at Myakka City Elementary School only is one way the district is working to address the bus driver shortage while also focusing on upgrading its buses and bringing in electric buses this school year.


More drivers needed

Joe Ranaldi, the chief operations officer for the School District of Manatee County, said although the district has 106 bus drivers to cover its 104 routes this school year, the district needs about 130 drivers to be fully staffed. 

“We are growing," he said. "We’re managing, but we’re not thriving at this point right now.

“As we go through the first month with transportation, we might be adding routes, we might be consolidating routes, we might be identifying bus stops that have no students, and we might be identifying bus stops that have too many students.”

Last year, the district covered 129 routes. The schedule was condensed for the new school year by no longer offering transportation to students who participated in school choice or hardship.

East County's Faby Delgado had to make changes to how she gets her daughter to and from R. Dan Nolan Middle School as a result of the district deciding to no longer provide transportation for students participating in school choice.

Delgado said she now has to pay for after-school care and she must drop her daughter off at school a lot earlier in the morning because of the change.

She understands the current problem is nobody's fault.

"I feel like I'm teaching my daughter how to manage her time wisely, how to take advantage of situations that are out of our control, and bringing her to the real world a little early. I can feel bad about it, but I choose not to. It is nobody's fault they don't have drivers, so it is what it is."

The district also has reduced the number of routes by not transporting students who live within 2 miles of their school. It is not a new rule, but it hasn't been strictly enforced in the past.

“We found a lot of instances where we had bus stops that were within 2 miles of the school,” Ranaldi said. “We weren’t watching it as closely. A lot of those bus stops were eliminated.”

Ranaldi said some bus drivers are starting earlier in the morning to accommodate the longer routes. 

“Our whole goal is to increase our on-time percentage by doing that,” he said. 


Upgrading technology

Ranaldi said the district will use funding this year to upgrade the cameras for each bus. 

Last year, the district spent $1,115,990 on bus purchases. Ranaldi said the district will upgrade the cameras on the bus to be on a cloud-based system. A sixth camera will be added to each bus.

Jamie Warrington, the director of transportation for the School District of Manatee County, said the upgrades to the cameras will allow the district to see and hear what’s happening on the bus. 

“The new system will allow us to be able to log in and observe and see what’s going on on the bus at the time, improving our response to a fight or a dispute, or some kind of medical emergency that might be happening,” Warrington said. “We’ll be able to to be on the phone with 911 and be able to describe what is actually happening at that time.”

The busses already use the “Where’s My Bus” app so parents can see where their child is on their route to or from school. However, the system tracks the bus and not the students. For example, a problem could exist if a breakdown causes students to board a different bus. The app would show the bus sitting in one place, and the parents wouldn't know where their children went.

Each student is required to scan their ID upon entering the bus. 

“We want to track the children,” Ranaldi said. “We don’t want to track the buses anymore. There are other vendors out there that say they can do that for us. If we can get that system up and running, then (parents will) be able to look at it right on their desktop and say, ‘OK, little Johnny got on the bus at 3:05 and according to this, he got off at the stop at 3:15.”


Going green

Within the 2022-2023 school year, the School District of Manatee County expects to receive four electric buses. 

The district was awarded a grant that would cover a portion of the cost of an electric bus through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Electric Bus project, which has an overall pot of $57 million to distribute. 

Manatee County is among 23 counties across the state that were eligible for the grant because the Florida Department of Environmental Protection considers them air quality priority areas. 

Warrington said the district expects to receive the electric buses at the end of the school year. 

“They are currently about nine to 12 months delayed, and it’s a supply chain issue,” Warrington said. “There’s a lot of grants out there, which is what we’re using to try to help us obtain these. Everybody’s getting on the bandwagon.”

Warrington said Florida Power & Light is starting to install the charging stations for the buses as well as put in the infrastructure for an additional 16 electric buses in case the district decides to add more electric buses in the future.


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