Mat-Su students go one day a week without bus service as hiring struggle continues

a person swinging on a swingset
A student flies high on a swing during recess at Dena’ina Elementary School in Wasilla in September 2020. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The state’s largest school districts continue to deal with a bus driver shortage as the academic year begins. 

In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, the large geographic area it covers — an area larger than the state of West Virginia — adds additional challenges. 

“It’s more than 10,000 miles a day that our buses are covering,” said Superintendent Randy Trani. “It’s a big task.”

A week before school started, Trani said the district’s school bus contractor, Durham School Services, had enough bus drivers to staff all 130 routes in the district. 

Later that week, he was told they’d lost several drivers. Some took bonuses to keep tourism jobs they worked over the summer, and some failed their physical exams. That left the district about 25 drivers short.

To deal with the shortage, the district has canceled bus service one day a week per route. That’s a different approach than the Anchorage School District, which divided its routes into three cohorts and staffed each one for three weeks out of nine.

“Every district is different and has to do what’s right for them, but we think it’s harder for our families, many of whom commute to Anchorage,” Trani said. “They might be able to handle one or two days a week where they have to call in late, but six weeks in a row, that’s probably not going to work for some people in the Valley.”

If a driver gets sick, the district has to send out a late-night email to families notifying them of additional days without bus service. Trani said that’s been frustrating for families.

Durham School Services is offering $1,500 bonuses to new drivers. But Trani said, without enough state funding, there’s not much else school districts can do to compete with tour companies for a small pool of workers.

“In the state of Alaska, the transportation dollars haven’t been changed for eight years,” he said. “It’s not a huge coincidence that the three largest school districts in the state are all simultaneously struggling to find contractors who can get enough people to drive buses. It becomes a resource issue at some point.”

Last year, he said, the district had its buses fully staffed by mid-October as the tour season came to an end. For now, district leaders are considering their options for the weeks ahead.

One could involve buses picking up students from central locations around the district, rather than driving through neighborhoods.

“Can we institute a hub system in the Mat-Su Valley?” he asked. “What does that look like? What does a bus stop look like out in the middle of somewhere near Houston? Is that even practical?”

Once they come up with answers, Trani said, the district plans to update families in the coming days.

RELATED: Anchorage parents scramble to arrange carpools amid school bus cancellations

Previous articleAddressing Alaskans: Hear the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation’s 2022 three-year outlook
Next articleAt this Nikiski farm, a cherry-tree experiment blossoms