New bus donated as Oconto Falls driver shortage continues

Bus route elimination led to traffic jams as school got underway
Warren Bluhm

An anonymous donor has gifted the Oconto Falls School District with $75,000 toward the purchase of a new diesel school bus.

The vehicle would replace a 2003 model bus that is long past its prime, Superintendent Dean Hess told the school board Sept. 19.

“This is a significant donation that allows us to spend money on other priorities,” Hess said.

The board accepted the donation with “a huge debt of gratitude,” said board secretary Jan Stranz.

The announcement was a bit of good transportation news in a fall that has been challenging for the school district. With an ongoing bus driver shortage, the board voted this summer to eliminate one bus route and service to families who live within a mile of school.

Even with that reduction, Hess said, the district is shorthanded.

“We still have one of our routes that is not being covered, and on a daily basis the transportation supervisor and one of the mechanics are splitting that. One drives in the morning, the other in the afternoon, and when possible we get someone to sub in, but that’s only worked out about three times this year.”

As has been the case for about two years, the school district is casting a wide net in search of new bus drivers and/or substitutes, Hess said.

The schools have made regular pleas on social media, placed a banner along the road at Memorial Field, set up a booth at the Oconto County Youth Fair and placed weekly ads in the Oconto County Times Herald, he said.

“Any other ideas are welcome,” Hess said.

Like many districts and private bus companies, Oconto Falls has been struggling to find bus drivers, in part because the work involves up to two hours of work in the morning, a long gap and another two hours or so in the afternoon.

Board member Ken Harter said he has received several comments that “driving bus is not a problem — it’s the kids,” and asked if the administration has thought about putting adult monitors to ride along.

Hess replied that it’s hard to find help in general, with at least one crossing guard position still posted, for example.

There has been some progress, he said. Three or four people are currently in the pipeline. One person is undergoing training to obtain the required commercial driver’s license (CDL), which the district provides as part of the recruitment package. Another person has a CDL already and expressed interest in being a morning substitute driver.

“We have some possibilities for the future, but at this point it’s important that people understand and appreciate the transportation team, the people that we have,” Hess said. “We are doing everything we can to retain them while at the same time recruiting other folks.”

The decision to eliminate service within a mile of schools has generated its own headaches. North Farm Road, where Oconto Falls High School and Oconto Falls Elementary School are both located, saw traffic jams at the beginning and end of the school day for the first few days after schools reopened Sept. 1, Hess said.

One parent who saw children darting through the gridlock invoked a state law that requires schools to develop and implement a “district hazardous plan” to address dangerous conditions, specifically citing the intersection of Farm Road and Sunrise Court across from the elementary school.

Administrators worked with the Oconto County Sheriff’s Department and the city of Oconto Falls to work up a plan that includes locating crossing guards at three key intersections, including Sunrise Court, with increased law enforcement and signage, Hess said.

The board approved the plan, which must now be shared with the state Department of Public Instruction. Hess did say the congestion has alleviated somewhat since the start of the school year as parents find alternatives to driving right up to the school, such as dropping their kids off and having them walk the last block or so.

“But the first few days, it was really challenging,” he said.