One-mile radius school bus limit remains

Oconto Falls doing all it can to avoid expanding the limit to two miles
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

Because of the ongoing school bus driver shortage, the 2023-24 school year will likely get underway with bus service still not available for students within one mile of Oconto Falls schools, the school board learned at its Aug. 14 meeting.

The board’s transportation committee met several times in the past month to discuss driver compensation and brainstorm different ways to get the word out about the need for school bus drivers, Superintendent Dean Hess reported.

The one-mile restriction was implemented a year ago because, like many school districts, Oconto Falls has been unable to recruit enough drivers to provide full bus service to all students. State law allows districts to withhold bus service to students within two miles if deemed necessary.

“We’re in the process of creating a video, which we will get out as soon as it’s ready, which identifies the possible perspective of drivers, what it is to be a driver for the Oconto Falls School District,” Hess said.

One new driver is about to begin training, in addition to an existing trainee, and the district has two or three substitute drivers with limited availability, Hess said. On the down side, one driver is currently on medical leave and may not be available to start the new year. The first day of class is Sept. 5.

“The committee’s consensus was, based on all of this information, we want to make sure we’re as up front and candid as we can,” he said. “At this point we don’t feel that it’s reasonable to think that we’re going to be able to re-establish transportation service inside the one-mile radius for the ‘23-24 school year.”

The district is doing everything it can to sustain existing service, Hess said, adding that given the age of the current group of drivers, newly recruited drivers are essentially helping to sustain the status quo.

“Obviously it would be great if at some point we were surprised and able to change that trajectory,” he said.

Board member Sarah Schindel, who chairs the committee, said the shortage remains despite a “valiant effort” by administration and staff to bolster the school bus driver force.

“The one thing that really resonated with me in the discussions was that at this point, we’re obviously working toward getting more drivers, but we’re almost at the point where we’re trying to prevent (implementing) a two-mile radius,” Schindel said.

New board member Carrie Hill said she was pleased to see the district working on one perceived disincentive for drivers, misbehavior on the school buses.

“There is a very good plan in place and a very good followup right now,” Hill said. “If there is an issue on the bus, the communication is immediate, the parents are brought into the situation, and that is a big step in the right direction for everybody involved.”

Hess reminded the board that the school bus driver shortage is not unique to Oconto Falls. School districts across the state and country are grappling with the challenge, he said.

“In a lot of ways, we’re actually leveraged in a little bit better situation,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the support of the board and the community for drivers to retain what we have.”