VISTA — One year after pausing multiple school bus routes due to a driver shortage and implementing a sign-on bonus as a hiring incentive, the Vista Unified School District is still struggling to meet student transportation needs.
The district began this school year with 36 filled positions and a shortfall of 15 drivers and is offering the same limited routes as last year: one high school shuttle for Mission Vista; three middle school shuttles for Madison, Rancho Minerva and Roosevelt; and three elementary routes for Breeze Hill, Grapevine and Mission Meadows.
At an Oct. 13 board of education meeting, Vista Unified COO Shawn Loescher said the district has hired 14 new drivers since last fall, which he credited to the implementation of a $5,000 sign-on bonus for new drivers and an increase from six to eight guaranteed work hours.
Despite this, Vista Unified is still facing approximately the same driver shortage as last year due to seven bus drivers retiring and six new special education routes being added, which took away general education bus drivers.
“Things are looking up in transportation, but we’re also facing challenges that we need to address,” Loescher said. “My takeaway is that this hiring strategy has, in fact, been effective. It has not caught up with all of the demand, but in terms of a hiring strategy, those are wonderful things.”
For now, the district has put on hold the re-implementation of paused general education routes serving students at Hannalei, Lake, Monta Vista, and T.H.E. Leadership Academy elementary schools while staff focus on implementing the new state-required special education routes.
Board member Julie Kelly said she was concerned by the lack of updates regarding the paused routes.
“We, as a board, have prioritized that we restore those routes. I’m hearing a lot of reasons why it’s a challenge, but I’m disappointed we don’t see any plans for those routes,” Kelly said. “This has been a very long time since we’ve interrupted transportation for those families.”
‘It’s not livable’
The district board extended the memorandum of understanding for driver sign-on bonuses and the 8-hour guarantee for one more year to continue drawing new hires. However, drivers said ongoing incentives and higher pay are needed in the long term to hire and retain people.
“If they do away with the eight hours, they’re going to lose some people,” said Julie Waasenaar, a Vista Unified bus driver of 31 years. “Management and the superintendent, and the money they make, don’t see how hard it is for classified [staff] to make a living, especially with a family.”
Driver shortages are not unique to Vista Unified, meaning that many districts are competing for the same hiring pool.
Job postings for Vista Unified bus drivers list the starting hourly wage as $23.80. Posted wages for neighboring school districts are around $21 per hour in San Marcos Unified, $20.60 hourly in Oceanside Unified, and $20.85 per hour in Escondido Union High School District.
Anita Herman, who joined the district as a bus driver last fall, said that she supports herself on her own and would like to see the district pay her and fellow drivers a living wage.
“The drivers are a fantastic group of people that work here, and we all work hard every day to transport the kids to and from when people are out sick and people are retired, and we still don’t have enough drivers. The one thing that would keep people here is a decent amount of pay and benefits that don’t cost you an arm and a leg to where you’re actually going to work to pay for your benefits,” Herman said.
Mario Bojorquez, a transportation assistant of 13 years and chief steward of the Vista chapter of the California School Employees Association, says the problem of low pay applies to all classified workers. He said it is extremely difficult, as a single father, to support himself and his son on around $2,400 per month.
“That’s considered competitive, but our argument is that it’s not livable,” Bojorquez said.
Kelly asked about the district’s goals for increased pay for drivers and was told that that would fall within labor bargaining.
“We heard from many public speakers… about pay and benefits needing to be more competitive,” Kelly said. “We heard loud and clear that that is a reason for attrition.”
Bojorquez said the employee union will continue to push for better wages for all classified staff, including bus drivers and other transportation workers. He also wants to see the district join the Classified School Employee Summer Assistance program, which pays out employees during the summer recess.
“The situation with the bus drivers is just a symptom of a larger issue in the district,” Bojorquez said. “We need a long-term solution.”
In response to questions from The Coast News about drivers’ pay, Loescher said Vista Unified pays higher than other districts.
“VUSD guarantees 8 hours a day of work (others only offer 5 hours), we offer a signing bonus, a higher placement on our starting salary, paid training opportunities, and medical benefits for our bus drivers. The district continues to study competitive total compensation for our team members, which is a combination of pay grade, benefits, hours of work, and additional factors,” Loescher said.
The topic of the classified worker summer assistance program, Loescher said, is a “historical and ongoing dialogue that involves several moving parts.”
Loescher said the district had identified strategies for “improved routes and capabilities,” including increasing route efficiency, continuing professional development for the current driver pool, updating its Transfinder technology system, and adding electric buses.
Due to the underutilization of many routes by students, officials will examine potential consolidation opportunities. Most buses and shuttles transport around a third of their student capacity on average, according to district data.
Superintendent Matthew Doyle said the district will bring back an action item to the board’s next meeting regarding adjustments to routes.
“We’re at a point in time where we probably should reshuffle,” Doyle said.
Transportation needs will also be changing with the impending closures of Beaumont Elementary and Rancho Minerva Middle schools at the end of the year, which will result in hundreds of students being displaced.
Beaumont students will likely be relocated to Monte Vista Elementary, and the old campus will be used as a swing site for the Bobier Elementary population during the school’s upcoming rebuild. Rancho Minerva students will be moved to Madison and Roosevelt, while Vista Innovation and Design Academy will be relocated to the old Rancho Minerva site.
“When we look at school boundaries, that could have a capacity impact,” said Loescher. “What we need to do is continue to increase our capacity.”
The district currently has seven electric buses in service, with 16 more on the way. This will require major improvements to the bus yard, including electrification for charging stations.