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Must love kids: Worker shortage has school district in need of activities, substitute bus drivers

There are certain certifications necessary for bus drivers, including a CDL license and various endorsements. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)1 / 4
Bus driver Laurie Grotnes sits in Bus 15 before her route begins. Grotnes said that driving bus has allowed her to meet multiple generations of local families. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)2 / 4
A group of bus drivers stands outside before heading out on their afternoon bus routes. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)3 / 4
A bus sits in the garage before the afternoon bus route begins. Buses begin running in the morning, and some run throughout the entire day. (Meagan Pittelko/Tribune)4 / 4

The day begins (as so many do) with a hot cup of coffee and a little BS'ing in the break room. Drivers pop in and out of the garage to start up the school buses, readying them for travel.

Once the buses are good and warm, particularly in the colder months of the school year, they line up, and then it's off on the routes, picking up the kiddos and dropping them off at school.

Back at home base, the garage, a bus driver's job could take them anywhere. Some come back and park their bus at the garage until the afternoon route. Others are driving all day, dropping off kids, then running special needs and activities routes during the day, only to return to the schools in the afternoon to pick up kids.

And even with a set route, there's something new every day.

"Your route's always changing," said Mike Hall, a driver with Olander Bus Services Inc.

No two school bus drivers are the same, but one thing is for certain, there is a need for them.

The need

The Detroit Lakes School District has three different bus services working to get students where they need to be. The district has its own buses, which run the in-town routes and the activities buses, and Olander's Bus Services Inc. and Schultz garage are both contracted out, with Olander's taking rural routes north of town and Schultz taking the routes south of town.

And the need for drivers at each bus service is a little different.

The district is hard-up for activities drivers and has been for a while. With the baby boomers retiring, a bus driver is just another one of those positions taking a hit in the employee department.

"We could use two to three people for either activities or subbing," said Celicia Kirsch, secretary to the director of transportation with the Detroit Lakes school district, adding that previously they did ok with six drivers, but the shortage is being felt across nearly every Minnesota school district.

Kirsch said that due to the shortage, she has had to order charter buses to get students to activities, which just costs the district more money.

"That's a last resort," she said.

As for Olander's, they would like to get some substitute bus drivers, someone who could pick up a few shifts when needed — and they would be needed.

"It's hard to get subs," said Mike Hall, a driver for Olander's.

Most people want to start out with a full-time route, but that's not always possible.

"They'd have to start as our number one sub, number two sub," said Katie Jasch, who was hired as an "emergency back-up driver" for Olander's, which quickly became a full-time gig.

"It's hard to get someone to wait for a full-time bus route," she said.

Getting the gig

Driving a school bus may not work with everyone's schedule. The hours definitely take flexibility, but the drivers at Olanders all seemed to agree that if you like kids, it's a pretty good gig.

"This brings in a little extra money. I like kids. I like driving," said Gary Gould who has been driving a route for Olanders for the last five years.

Mike Hall, who started driving in the Lake Park school district says driving bus is also good for parents.

"You work the same days," he said.

Even for Kris Harden, who doesn't have kids of his own, the students have been a highlight for him since he started driving bus eight years ago.

"I've hauled kids, and now I haul their kids. Kids that I went to school with, now I'm hauling their kids," said Laurie Grotnes, who drives bus number 15, adding that she has one little girl on her route, who is the great granddaughter of one of her good friends. "Seeing her just makes me smile in the morning."

But of course, driving bus takes patience, too.

"There's some (kids) that you're really excited when they get their driver's license," Grotnes joked.

More than keeping track of the kids, though, driving bus in a northern Minnesota winter is a task all it's own.

Mike Kunz, who has been a bus driver since '68, knows exactly which roads give him the most trouble in the winter: Apple Fritter Way and Bismark Lane.

He says one farm, which used to be on his route, had horrible drifts where he'd get stuck all the time, a nerve-wrecking nuisance — but it's no problem.

They turn sour bus driver trials into something sweet at Olanders.

"When that happens (when he gets stuck), I have to buy sweet rolls for the troops here," said Kunz.

"I bake every day," said Grotnes. "If someone hits a mailbox, forgets a kid ... we say 'That's a bake.'"

Passing the test

While there is a need for drivers, without a license to drive a bus, getting the gig just isn't plausible — and there are a few different tests and hoops to jump through to get it.

First there is the Commercial Driver's License, basically a written general knowledge test prospective drivers need to pass. Then, there are three endorsements drivers need: passenger, school bus, and air brake.

Once the written portions are passed, a driver then gets a learner's permit and is able to practice driving a bus with a licensed bus driver accompanying them.

"Then, a behind-the-wheel is the final step," said Colin Gedrose, the director of transportation with the Detroit Lakes school district.

The behind-the-wheel begins with a pre-trip inspection and ends with a road test.

To work for the district, a driver also needs to go through a criminal background check, but once all is clear, they're ready to drive.