A shortage of school bus drivers in the Moscow School District may make it impossible to fill some trip requests for athletics and other activities in the spring.

According to Charlie Gerke, director of operations for the district, at least four more substitute drivers are needed to ensure they have enough people to cover for drivers with regular routes who are busy ferrying students to spring events. Otherwise, he said, the district may be forced to limit or refuse some trips all together.

“Certainly getting kids to and from school is the biggest priority, but we also want to make sure our kids get to off their extracurricular activities to the extent that we can,” Gerke said. “We don’t want to say ‘we can’t get you to this basketball game because we don’t have a driver.’ School comes first, activities are second, but we realize that activities are a huge part of the student experience.”

For safety reasons, Gerke said Department of Transportation regulations mandate that bus drivers can only be on the clock for 15 hours before they’re required to take an eight-hour break. This means that if a driver has to stay out past 10:25 p.m. in order to bring an athletics team home from an event, it will be illegal for them to clock in at 6:25 a.m. for their regular route. Without enough substitutes to pick up the slack, he said it falls to the district to decide which events they’re able to service, limit or deny.

“It’s not fair to the kids,” said district Transportation Director Greg Harris, noting the driver shortage causes other inefficiencies for his department.

“It ends up costing us more — if we have a bunch of trips in Pullman and Lewiston and we don’t have enough drivers, we’ll bring (the students) down, drive back, do a route and then go back down and get them,” Harris said. “We’re putting more miles on the buses (and) burning more fuel. … We make it work but it’s pretty complicated.”

Ideal candidates for a bus driver will have at least some experience driving large trucks or farm equipment. He said would-be drivers must be older than 18, have a pristine driving record and be able to pass a DOT physical. While those with a commercial driver’s license are preferred — and get a better hiring incentive — it’s not mandatory. Harris himself is a certified CDL instructor, and the district will reimburse candidates who go through the training, which can be done on-site in Moscow.

He said the need for substitute drivers has become so critical that their in-house bus technician often finds himself driving a route or two a day. Harris said Moscow’s troubles are reflective of a nationwide bus driver shortage.

“Over the years, our society hasn’t valued the bus driver as a job and the position that it is — it’s really, really, really important,” Harris said. “You’ve got everybody’s precious cargo on board and it takes a certain person to drive down the road, watch out for everybody else and turn your back on 50 kids and look in the mirror and make sure everybody’s following the rules.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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