Oconto Falls schools poised to increase no-bus zone

‘This is not the right answer,’ but board sees no choice
Warren Bluhm
News Editor

With two more school bus drivers submitting their retirement papers, the Oconto Falls School Board took steps April 8 to reduce transportation service to students living within a two-mile radius of school buildings.

For the past two school years, the district has stopped busing students within a mile of school, but unless there’s an influx of new drivers, it will have to expand that radius to the maximum allowed by law.

“It’s not in the best interest of kids. It is not,” Superintendent Dean Hess told the board. “We don’t feel good about this, we’re frustrated by it, but when we look at all the stones we’ve overturned to go look for another answer, we’re not finding it.”

Hess and Transportation Supervisor Brandie Binion explained that full service would be to have 16 drivers running 16 bus routes, but the current reality with the one-mile limit is that 14 drivers are running 15 routes. That means district staff and other subs are frequently being tabbed to fill in.

“Essentially our subs are for the most part internal — they’re people who already work for us part-time, in some cases they’re retired drivers that we coax, Brandie coaxes them to come back,” Hess said. “Without those folks all stepping forward, there’s no way that this would all work. We have staff members who are coaches who are often driving buses to our games and meets and different activities, and again without them, it doesn’t work.”

The status quo is not sustainable, he said.

“We’re barely holding on by our fingernails now. We talked about the fact that we have staff members now that are coming in early and staying late in order to answer phones so that supervisors and mechanics and other members of our staff are driving,” Hess said. “We looked at what is sustainable, and it’s not because we think it’s a good idea. We’re just trying to not find ourselves like some school districts that overpromised and under-delivered.”

Those other districts find themselves calling parents and saying, “We can’t pick your kids up or get them home today,” so families have to scramble to get their kids to and from school, he said.

For about five years the district — and private companies here and across the country — have struggled to recruit new drivers. There is an ongoing publicity effort in local media and social media to encourage people to apply, and compensation has been increased with signing and retention bonuses, to little avail.

Board president Clint Gardebrecht said he hopes expanding the no-transportation radius will encourage drivers to come forward.

“This is not the right answer,” Gardebrecht said. “We really need a further upswell in the community to try to shake the trees and get people to realize how challenging a situation we’re in, and to get some people to raise their hands and say, ‘Hey, I’m willing to go become a bus driver.”