With a proposed wage increase on the table, Higley Unified School District hopes to find it easier to hire and retain employees who have a much-in-demand commercial driver license to drive its buses.

The Governing Board is scheduled on March 8 to tentatively adopt a preliminary $124 million budget, which includes a $1-an-hour increase for classified employees, which also includes janitors and cafeteria workers.

“The exact same CDL that our employees have here or any school bus driver at the State of Arizona also allows them to drive water trucks, trash trucks and other large commercial vehicles and to be honest with you two of the people that left us this year are driving for the Town of Gilbert trash department,” said Josh Crosby, transportation director at the Feb. 22 board meeting.

“I’ll just say that it’s kind of sad that we value and pay a trash truck driver more to haul trash than we do our own children.”

According to Crosby, the district has 51 drivers this school year and 50 last year.

“Both years we’ve had four routes that are unassigned,” he said. “I want to be clear that the routes are still running. There is just no driver available to bid on those routes so we’re running them in-house with office staff and mechanics and other people that have their CDL.

“It’s obviously not unique to Higley. It’s nationwide.”

He said for this school year the district hired 12 of the 26 people who applied to drive a bus.

“Four of them eventually resigned after finding a better-pay position,” Crosby said. “Four were disqualified at the interview and 10 declined when offered the position by HR with the most common reason given was compensation.

“So that brought us up to eight drivers essentially from that application pool. If you marry that up with our existing drivers, we had two bus drivers that retired, we had two others that found other employment, two resigned and we had one internal transfer so our net gain is one driver up from where we were last year.”

Although Higley in January 2022 bumped the starting pay of bus drivers by $2 an hour to $18.33, it still ranked second from the bottom compared with other districts. Higley does offer paid training for all of its prospective drivers.

“Obviously, pay’s a big thing for our drivers,” Crosby said. “We have struggled staying with the pack. The other districts around us, kind of our competition, are higher with the exception of Combs School District.”

Another factor in trying to attract drivers is the split shift, in that they are only paid when they are driving a bus and not paid for the in-between time while students are at school.

“So, unless they pick up field trips and other things you’re essentially at work for a 10-hour day getting paid six to eight hours a day on average,” Crosby said.

Despite not having enough bus drivers, the district gets students to school on schedule 99.27% of the time.

Crosby said he knows of some districts where due to the shortage are having drivers pick up one route and then double-back to drive a second route, “picking up kids 30 or 40 minutes late after the bell.”

“I do want to point out that with COVID and the driver shortages there have been many districts around the state that have increased their high school-radius from 2 miles and some are even up to 3 miles down in the south,” Crosby said. “We are fortunate enough we were able to keep ours at the 1.5(miles).”

Board President Tiffany Shultz asked Crosby where the district would need to fall on the pay scale in order to be competitive and not have a shortage of bus drivers.

Crosby said even if Higley were to land in the middle the pack, the other districts would just continue to up their pay.

“Our two biggest competitors are Queen Creek and Chandler,” he said. “Queen Creek came to the game this year. They were quiet for a while.

“They have really stepped up advertising their incentives and all that in there. From what I understand (Queen Creek is) almost fully staffed right now. So I would say those are two competitors to keep an eye on.”

Shultz said district competition for job candidates is a fact of life.

“They have much larger budgets,” Shultz said. “So it’s so much more important that our culture is what it is and what we’ve worked really hard for to really make people feel valued and want to be here because we just can’t compete all the time in that salary area.”

Board member Kristina Reese said it’s not just bus drivers that Higley has to compete for against much larger districts like Chandler and Mesa.

“They’re our neighbors,” she said. “They’re huge districts.

“They have huge budgets, which essentially gives them buying power and gives them the ability to offer higher salaries for teachers, for bus drivers, for essentially any position within their district, which makes it difficult for us as a smaller district that we can’t offer the same.

“And that’s part of why it’s also been our district’s focus on how we treat people that sometimes it’s not always about the amount that they’re paid but how they’re treated.”

Also down in head count are bus aides, who must be certified in CPR and first aid. Their job includes loading and securing special-needs students.

The district last year had 22 and this year, 18, according to Crosby. He said the district received two applications this year for bus aide with one declining the offer.

Board member Amanda Wade asked if the shortage of bus aides mean some buses needing them are operating without or are other employees filling in for those positions.

Crosby responded that if a student’s Individualized Educational Plan states that an aide is required, there is another adult aboard the bus.

The district’s transportation department also includes seven office staff, five mechanics and four van drivers. The department oversees 87 buses that run 272 routes a day and over 700,000 miles a year, servicing 15 in-district schools and 15 out-of-district schools that are required for some of the district’s special-needs programs and students in transition, according to Crosby.

Under the board’s policy, elementary and middle school students who live outside a 1-mile radius from their school or are required to cross railroad tracks or major thoroughfares are offered bus service.

High school students who live more than a 1.5-mile radius from their school also are allowed to ride the bus. The district has 5,415 students eligible to ride the bus twice a day.