Three years ago, Forest Lake Area Schools sent a team of bus drivers to the “Minnesota School Bus Road-eo” at Arden Hills. That year, and every year since, the district has seen at least one driver earn a trip to the national competition. The competitors all agree that it wouldn’t be possible without a lot of team spirit.
“I don’t even feel like the trophies are mine, but rather that they belong to all of us,” said bus driver Karina Larson, who earned a first-place finish at state and a second-place finish at nationals. “Without the support of my team and all of the bus drivers here in Forest Lake, this would never have been possible.”
Larson, a 10-year veteran with the Forest Lake district, competed in the Special Education bus category against 75 other public school drivers at the state level on May 4, and nine others at the national competition in Indianapolis July 15 and 16. Earl Nelson, Darcy Overland, and Becky Devine also represented Forest Lake in state competition. Overland earned a first-place finish at state and joined Larson at nationals, competing in the traditional bus category. She finished in 22nd place against some tough competition from both the United States and Canada.
“The competition consists of a written test, a pre-ride checklist where you are tasked with finding five things wrong in five minutes, and also a driving course,” said Overland, who has driven bus for seven years. “Some of the driving skills tested include parallel parking, 90 degree back-in, offset alley, straight line, curved line, stop line, right and left turns, student pick-up, railroad crossing, and diminishing clearance.”
Although it may sound easy, the straight line skill test is one of the more daunting parts of the competition.
“They place tennis balls 3 inches wider than your tire clearance, and you have to travel 200 feet and not hit them,” Devine said. “It is a lot tougher than most people might think.”
Forest Lake drivers enter the competition on a volunteer basis and practice between 10 and 12 hours a week on their own time in the four weeks leading up to the competition.
“This is a chance for us to learn and get better at a lot of skills that a regular bus driver might not have,” Devine said. “I volunteer because I like that challenge, and really it only helps to make you better at the job.”
That job is one that needs employees. A 2015 survey by School Bus Fleet magazine showed that 92 percent of responding districts had a shortage of school bus drivers. This is a significant increase from 2010, when 71 percent of districts polled stated they had a shortage. Of the 92 percent responding, approximately 18 percent reported a severe shortage, while 8 percent stated they were desperate. The remaining 66 percent considered their shortages mild or moderate.
“The national school bus driver shortage does seem to be affecting our area and school district,” Forest Lake Area Schools transportation safety coordinator Sandy Knight said. “We always have a bus in the Fourth of July parade, but this (was) the first year we (handed) out flyers looking for area residents to consider becoming a school bus driver for Forest Lake Area Schools.”
The Forest Lake Area School District has an on-site training program for interested drivers. No experience is necessary, as the program coaches work with prospective employees on everything from actually driving the bus to student management. Training includes 20 hours behind the wheel as well as both CPR and additional first aid training. Permits are obtained within the first week, and a motivated person can be ready to drive in less than a month.
“This is a great place to work,” Nelson said. “The camaraderie amongst all the drivers is just great. Everyone is so friendly.”
Devine echoed Nelson’s statements.
“There are people here who I don’t even know their names, and they wave and say hello and wish me a good evening,” she said. “It’s stuff like that that makes it a joy to come to work.”
Another positive aspect of a job as a bus driver is the flexibility in the scheduling. This hit home particularly hard for Overland.
“My husband and I own our own business, and I am able to work this job and still handle what I need to with that business,” she said. “Also, when my kids were younger, I could take them with me on the route.”
During their time in the competition, the Forest Lake drivers were able to speak to some from other districts do a little comparing. They walked away glad that they work where they do.
“We have really nice equipment to work with, and if there is ever any issue, it is handled immediately,” Larson said. “Our maintenance crew is top notch, and if you need anything fixed or replaced, it will be done right away with no question.”
The positivity coming from the drivers speaks to the bus driver retention rate. According to Knight, Forest Lake sees very few people leave the job early, and most of the need for drivers comes from retirements.
As far as the competition goes, all four 2017 competitors plan to try their hand in 2018 and also hope to encourage fellow drivers to volunteer as well.