Paradise Valley admin gets students to school amid Arizona bus driver shortage

Students getting off bus

Students exit a school bus as they return to Tuscano Elementary School for class Thursday, May 3, 2018, in Phoenix. After an all night legislative budget session the legislature passed the new education spending portion of the budget and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed that part of the budget. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

By Robert Gundran

February 29, 2024

“If I was fully staffed I would have 110 drivers,” Brandon George said. “Right now I [have] about 52 to 54 drivers. I am 45 to 50 [drivers] short every day.”

 

PARADISE VALLEY—Brandon George is the director of transportation at Paradise Valley Unified School District, which serves parts of Scottsdale and Phoenix. Operating with roughly half the bus drivers he would need to drive all the routes in the district, he said, has made his job extremely challenging.

“We’re just working hard trying to recruit drivers and get people in the door,” George said. “That’s the hardest part.”

Still, amid a national bus driver shortage that has seen other departments across the country cut routes, sowing uncertainty and instability for their students, George has been able to get every student to school consistently throughout the school year without cancelling any routes..

“We’re going to always send a bus,” he said. “We’re never going to leave a student at home. We have an obligation to get them to school where they can receive their education.”

George said that, even if drivers need to double and triple up on shifts in order to keep every route running, which they often do, his students don’t have to worry about how they’re getting to school in the morning each time they go to sleep at night.

 

Meet Paradise Valley

The Paradise Valley Unified School District is a sprawling school district bordered by Jomax Road to the north, Piestewa Peak to the south, Seventh Avenue to the west, and the Loop 101 Freeway to the east.

The district covers about 100 square miles of northeast Phoenix and north Scottsdale.

Paradise Valley schools serve roughly 26,000 students across more than 40 schools. Many of those students take the school bus every morning and afternoon.

But it’s not just Paradise Valley that’s struggling to hire drivers for those buses—districts across the nation are reckoning with the shortage. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reported that bus driver employment fell from about 226,000 in September 2019 to roughly 192,000 in 2023—a drop of more than 15%

While those numbers are up from the low that they reached as students returned from the pandemic, according to EPI, the number of students attending school continues to climb at a rate that outpaces the post-pandemic increase in bus drivers.

“Asking fewer bus drivers to pick up more students means longer routes, earlier morning pick-ups, and later drop-offs,” read the EPI report. “These burdensome logistics can increase the likelihood of a student missing school time and diminish their chances of participating in other activities—not to mention the additional burden they can place on parents trying to coordinate work schedules.”

 

Addressing the issue

In January, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, proposed a renewal of Prop 123, a measure initially passed by voters in 2016 that increased education funding by $3.5 billion from 2016-2025.

Hobbs’ proposal would expand Prop 123 for 10 more years, increasing the State Land Trust Permanent Fund to almost 9%—an increase from the measure’s initial 6.9%.

The State Land Trust Permanent Fund was set up by the federal government when Arizona became a state in 1912. It set aside millions of acres of land in a trust to help pay for schools.

The Arizona State Land Department sells and leases acres of land. The department sends money that it makes from these sales and leases to the Arizona Treasury Office for investment into the State Land Trust Permanent Fund.

Arizona Sen. Christine Marsh, a Democrat who’s up for reelection in November, is a teacher in Scottsdale. She said Prop 123 is one way to handle the lack of drivers.

“The Democratic proposal [for Prop 123] includes funding for all school personnel,” Marsh said. “This includes bus drivers, paraprofessionals, media specialists, counselors, etc. Arizona is facing a staffing shortage in public schools for most positions right now, but we could at least mitigate it.”

Here is a breakdown of how Hobbs’ renewed Prop 123 would allocate the annual increase in funding over the next 10 years, on average:

  • $257 million for general school funding
  • $347 million for educator pay
  • $118 million for support staff pay
  • $39 million for school safety and security

It would need to pass both chambers of the Arizona Legislature in order to then appear on the ballot for voters’ approval in the 2024 general election.

 

RELATED: Find your representatives by clicking here—then tell them what you think they should prioritize.

 

Meanwhile, Republicans in the Legislature proposed their own version of Prop 123. It includes raises for teachers only.

“We need more funding in our schools, and one path to do that is through an extension of Prop 123 that includes [raises for] all staffing positions, not just teachers,” Marsh said.

 

READ MORE: Showdown imminent between Hobbs and Republican legislators over school vouchers

 

With Republicans controlling both chambers of the Arizona Legislature, it’s unlikely that Hobbs’ proposal will make it to voters.

 

Making the best of the situation

For Brandon George, who is on the ground dealing with the issue every day, the main things the district needs are more workers and more funding.

“We just have to get people to apply, that’s pretty much what it is,” George said. “My marketing department [does] a great job with advertising. We use social media. We purchased the banners on the side of the bus. We’re just trying to encourage people to apply.”

School bus drivers are often offered lower wages than the median American worker.

The Economic Policy Institute reported the median school bus driver earned $548 a week from 2020-2022, compared to the median American worker, who made $961.

George said Paradise Valley is doing the best it can to retain and recruit drivers through competitive pay. He said drivers without experience start at $19.58 per hour, compared to $16.78 per hour when he started in that position four years ago.

The district’s website places the starting pay range for bus drivers between $19.09 and $20.32 per hour. The Democratic Prop 123 proposal would increase those wages—and the chance that George could hire the 45-50 drivers he needs.

Although bus drivers aren’t among the highest paid workers in the district, George said the district does things to show drivers they are valued and their work is important.

He provided a recent example of this—when he and his staff got up at 4:45 a.m. on Valentine’s Day to cook the drivers breakfast.

George praised his staff and said they’re the reason the district hasn’t had to cut routes.

“I think that I have a great culture here in my department. I have hard-working people and it’s their dedication that allows us to continue to serve the entire community and not cut routes.”

 

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Author

  • Robert Gundran

    Robert Gundran grew up in the Southwest, spending equal time in the Valley and Southern California throughout his life. He graduated from Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in 2018 and wrote for The Arizona Republic and The Orange County Register.

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