Transportation funding is key priority for 2022
Despite shortage, bus drivers go the extra mile for their students
by David Ngô
For Garden Grove Chapter 121 bus drivers Gabriela Sanchez and Gabriel Arana, shifts usually start at 6 a.m. After completing their pre-trip inspections, bus cleaning, and morning check-in with dispatchers, their route begins. As two of the chapter’s 102 bus drivers, they help provide transportation for 68 schools with an enrollment of nearly 41,000 students. But it hasn’t been easy this year. Both Sanchez and Arana say Garden Grove Unified School District (GGUSD) is short 10 to 15 drivers from full staffing. And with the longer routes and increased workload, some days it feels like even more.
Gabriela Sanchez stands in front of her Type D school bus.
Labor shortage is only part of the problem
According to a recent survey of schools across America, the shortage of school bus drivers is widespread due to better paying jobs pulling drivers away. Many school districts are grappling with an unprecedented shortage of bus drivers – leading to altered routes, pickup delays and cancelled services. Adding to the problem in California is the fact that transportation funding hasn’t been increased in almost a decade. When the state’s Home-To-School-Transportation Program (HTST) was created in 1947, transportation costs were reimbursed by the state and increased regularly to accommodate rises in fuel, labor and maintenance.
Bus drivers from Garden Grove Chapter 121 attend an October district meeting after being left out of a Personnel Commission decision.
When the state switched to the Local Control Funding Formula in 2012, it froze transportation funding and hasn’t adjusted it since. Meanwhile, California schools have been forced to endure almost a decade of choosing to take funds from other school programs to pay for increased costs, shifting those costs to families, or cutting services. This compounding loss of transportation funds, coupled with the current nationwide labor shortage, has created a worst-case scenario that must be addressed. That is why correcting the HTST formula and fully funding school transportation is a top legislative priority for CSEA in the 2022 legislative session that begins in January.
CSEA members remain dedicated despite challenges
For an outsider, picking up 40 kids on time at multiple stops is an impressive feat. But for drivers, leaving just one student behind weighs heavily on their conscience. “There's this boy who always tries to catch my bus last minute, but we’re timed. And you see this kid running with his hair messed up, and I can’t just leave him behind, so I wait,” Sanchez said. School bus drivers are limited to a certain amount of time they can stay at a bus stop and are timed while out on their routes. “I drive in a low income area. For some families’ kids, school meals might be their only food for the entire day,” Sanchez added. “For me, getting to their stop on time so they’re at school for a meal is the highlight of my day.” Sanchez’s experience taking students to school is a source of pride and joy shared with bus drivers across California. But amid the ongoing labor shortage, bus drivers are forced to “cover” routes outside of their own or routes are just cancelled. The scarcity of skilled drivers, who are required by law to undergo rigorous certification and training, has led those remaining to take on these additional responsibilities and pressure.
“I drive in a low income area. For some families’ kids, school meals might be their only food for the entire day,” Sanchez added. “For me, getting to their stop on time so they’re at school for a meal is the highlight of my day.”
- Gabriela Sanchez, bus driver, Garden Grove Chapter 121
“Every single day, it feels like we’re covering for each other because there aren’t enough drivers and the district is huge,” Arana said. “It’s actually at a point now where our dispatchers themselves have to go out and do a route because we just don’t have the drivers.” GGUSD’s “campus time” program requires Sanchez and Arana to work on campus as yard duty during recess and as an instructional aide to make up for staffing shortages in other departments.
Fighting for fair pay on the local level
Transportation workers from Garden Grove Chapter 121 protested after being left out of GGUSD’s Personnel Commission decision that would increase pay for driving instructors, dispatchers and bus drivers. The Commission has yet to issue its final decision, so it’s possible their efforts could see a favorable outcome. “They decided to protest on their own and came to us for suggestions, which I thought was great,” Garden Grove Chapter President Linda Elliot said. “I’m so proud of the bus drivers. They organized this entirely themselves.”
Gabriel was also featured in an Orange County Tribune article after speaking during public comment at the board meeting.
Since that time, the district superintendent has met with CSEA bus drivers to address concerns, which led to opening a study by outside consultants to recommend further actions on pay increases. The GGUSD personnel commission is now expected to deliver findings for a possible action on pay increases by December 15. The story of CSEA members working in transportation is becoming more common: staff committed to serving their students taking on more responsibilities without adequate staffing. But it’s the working-class families who rely on school buses for their kids that risk losing a service they depend on. “You get attached. Even if they’re not our kids, I call them my kids,” Sanchez said. “You have to love what you do. And I love my route, I love my kids and I love the schools.”