What will it take to solve the Anchorage school bus driver shortage? A morning ride along offers clues.

Michael Herzog talks on the radio about avoiding a police blockage near Moutain View Drive and Bragaw Street on his way to drop off students at Clark Middle School early Tuesday morning on Aug. 30, 2022. Herzog said that his first priority is the safety of the students on the bus. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Every weekday morning around 6:30 a.m., Michael Herzog, 58, inspects a school bus at the Anchorage School District’s transportation depot. He checks the lights and the tread on the tires. Then, he gets into the driver’s seat to test the brakes.

Herzog is one of more than 150 drivers on staff in the Anchorage School District, which is facing an ongoing driver shortage. A morning on his route offers a window into how the district may be able to entice more drivers to help get students to school.

Herzog applied after retiring from a retail job. He has three kids who all went through the district, and he said he’s a big believer in public education.

Michael Herzog, an ASD bus driver, checks his bus to make sure everything is working properly early Tuesday morning on Aug. 30, 2022. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

“I felt like I wanted to give something back to the community,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t quite ready to exit the work thing, and the schedule of that. I knew I wanted to do something with kids.”

Herzog started driving in winter 2021, when Anchorage students went back to school in person for the first time since the pandemic started.

On Tuesday morning, Herzog took dozens of kids from East Anchorage to high school, middle school and elementary school. He greeted each student who walked onto the bus. Sometimes that came with a safety reminder.

“Do me a favor, wait until the reds come out before you cross, because that car may or may not have stopped,” he told a student.

Herzog said the number of good mornings and hellos he gets back increases as the year goes on. That’s one downside of the cohort system in place this fall, which gives every route three weeks of service and six without.

“It takes just three weeks for them to get used to you – three or four weeks,” he said. “So it’s kind of a shame that that three week break, it’s kind of at that moment where the kids start feeling relaxed on the bus, they get to know you.”

Herzog said this job isn’t for everybody. You have to like kids and be patient with other drivers. You also have to be willing to work a split shift – a few hours for morning pickup and a few in the afternoon for dropoff. 

Herzog usually works around 30 hours a week. The district pays $20.68 per hour. 

Herzog said one big incentive for him is access to health benefits. But he said some bus drivers say they can’t make a living without a summer driving job.

“When I first came on board, some people did say that their summer job allowed them to be the school bus driver,” he said.

A lot of those summer jobs are in the tourism industry. The district expects 17 drivers to return from summer jobs in mid-September. 

Yvette Edwards is a transportation supervisor for the district. She’s also worked as a bus attendant and a driver.

“A lot of our drivers stayed with the tourist company because they’re making good tips,” she said. “And People Mover’s just as short, so they’re pulling from bus drivers as well.”

People Mover, the city’s bus program, pays up to $29.37 hourly. One tour company, Alaska Cruise Transportation, lists pay at up to $27 an hour plus tips, with a guarantee of 40-hour work weeks from May to mid-September. That company also offers bonuses if drivers stay through mid-September.

Districts around the state are trying to figure out what it takes to attract more drivers amid a nationwide shortage, and Edwards said wages play “a huge part.” If the district wants to attract and retain drivers, she said, they should pay them more.

East High School students sit at the end of the bus early Tuesday morning on Aug. 30, 2022. Mike Herzog, an ASD bus driver says he makes it a goal to say hello and learn everyone’s names. Because of the three week rotation of new bus routes, it has been difficult to sustain his relationship with the students. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

The district is in contract negotiations with Teamsters Local 959, the union that represents some of the bus drivers.

The district has been offering signing bonuses, paid training opportunities and help getting new drivers their commercial drivers’ licenses. But, according to Edwards, that’s not why most applicants say they’re applying.

“There’s a lot of outpour from the community,” she said. “It’s very touching because they’re like, ‘You know, I’ve heard the need, and I feel like I want to do my part and I see you guys need people.’”

Herzog has heard that from new drivers, too. New drivers ride along with him when they’re getting familiar with the job, and he said a few of them have been parents in the district.

“Three of them have kids in school, and they were like, ‘I should help out,’” he said.

Herzog’s last stop for the morning is at Nunaka Valley Elementary School. Students thanked him and said goodbye on their way out.

He’d be back later this afternoon, ready to greet each one of them with a smile.

Mike Herzog checks the inside of the bus for students, lost items and any safety hazards between each bus route. (Mizelle Mayo/Alaska Public Media)

Correction: This story has been updated. A previous version misspelled Herzog’s last name.

Previous articleMary Peltola talks salmon, bipartisanship and winning Alaska’s U.S. House race
Next articleAlaska News Nightly: Thursday, September 1, 2022