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School bus driver shortages persist in north central Florida. Here’s how some districts are responding

A bus waits for field trip students at the University of Florida. (Lauren Brensel/WUFT News)
A bus waits for field trip students at the University of Florida. (Lauren Brensel/WUFT News)

In his 11 years driving a school bus for Marion County, Glenn Cremeans said he’s never seen students behave so poorly as they do today — the primary reason he believes the district suffers from a bus driver shortage.

“They say if you take all the miles that we drive every day on our Marion County buses,” Cremeans said, “you can drive to Alaska.”

With 30 vacant spots for drivers, the Marion County school district isn’t an anomaly.

Bus driver shortages have marked school districts across the nation for years, leading buses to be late and drivers forced to pick up extra routes. As a result, North Central Florida counties are attempting to curb the shortage by eliminating routes, focusing on retention strategies and reevaluating school start and stop times.

In the Alachua County school district, which has 20 driver vacancies, routes are already being cut.

Starting Jan. 16, all students who live within two miles of their zoned school in the district will no longer be provided a bus.

The district currently offers these routes to about 1,200 students as a courtesy outlined in an unfunded state program. The decision to discontinue courtesy bus routes will free up 16 buses and save the district $1.8 million. Exceptional Student in Education (ESE) students and students at seven elementary schools won’t be impacted by the cut in routes after the district designated the schools as high-need areas for transportation.

Though the transportation department in Marion County considered following Alachua County’s lead on eliminating courtesy routes, school district spokesperson Kevin Christian said it wouldn’t make sense for the area.

“We're very much a rural county,” he said. “You've got major highways in every direction. You've got rail services all over the county. We don't want students having to make that kind of decision that could turn out to be a deadly one.”

In Alachua County, parents of students impacted canrequest transportation if their child faces a hazardous walking situation on their way to school. A hazardous road defined by the state may have no curb or a speed limit of at least 50, among other dangers.

Once a parent submits the request, a committee of representatives from the district, state or local government and law enforcement will inspect the site. If the committee determines the site is a hazard to a student’s walk to school, a courtesy bus will continue for all students in the area.

The Alachua County school district is also combining routes for about 1,600 students who attend magnet schools. They will be grouped into “hub” spots to decrease the number of buses, 26, required for transportation.

All changes in routes for magnet school students and courtesy riders will be reflected on the district’s website Dec. 1.

It is unclear how the change in routes will be impacted by the district’s comprehensive rezone, which will be in effect for next school year.

Some districts are also looking to up their retention strategies.

Marion County parent Jodie Mahns said, despite living just a few miles from Dunnellon Middle School, her son often arrives to class 45 minutes late, resulting in him bringing home extra work he missed.

“It’s like ‘How are you passing first period if you're not even there for half of the class?’” she said.

Mahns said she preferred how there were more drivers last year, many of whom weren’t from the district.

“They were great — they were on time,” she said. “But the drivers had a problem because those that were being brought in from outside companies were getting paid more and they didn't continue into the following school year.”

Christian said the Marion County school district is focusing on its retention strategies this year, including reevaluating drivers’ salaries and hosting hiring events called Bus Blitzes. During a Blitz, the district brought buses to central locations in the county to make it easier for people to sign up for the job. Through four Blitzes, Christian said the program gained several applications but few permanent drivers.

“People drop out of the process or they leave after they've driven the job for a few days,” he said. “I've been with our district for 23 years. In 23 years, we've never had all the bus drivers that we need.”

In Putnam County, where there are 32 driver vacancies, director of transportation Sharon Spell said drivers have a higher salary this year but the county’s shortage remains.

“Nobody really wants to be a bus driver,” she said, “because everybody else thinks it’s really easy until they actually do it and then they wind up taking their skills and talents elsewhere to make more money. You just can't stop people from leaving.”

Cremeans said training drivers on how to respond to misbehaving students would help prepare them in advance for the job’s difficulties.

“A lot of [bus drivers] would just look out the windshield and drive and that doesn't help the situation,” he said. “I’ve tried to explain to drivers over the years that, if you take the time to make your kids behave, you're going to enjoy the job more.”

In Alachua County, director of transportation Don Rowls said one incentive the district is currently using is a signing bonus regardless of if the applicant already has their commercial driver’s license or not.

A long-term approach some districts, including Alachua County, are considering is altering school hours to alleviate the traffic that bus drivers experience in the morning and afternoon.

To do so, the Alachua County school district developed a committee that will evaluate whether time changes are necessary. Rowls said the committee hasn’t met yet but will consider local aspects and a new state law surrounding start times.

“Taking in the lay of the land and the factors that are considered for our district,” he said. “So traffic patterns, ‘Where's the school location?’ Those sorts of things.”

In Marion County, Christian said, if the district would address start times, it would be at the beginning of a school year, but that the ramifications of changing school hours are significant.

“When you start deviating school schedules,” he said, “you reach the point of no return. You make things worse.”

Under a recent Florida law, by the 2026-2027 school year, middle schools must start no earlier than 8 a.m. and high schools must start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Lauren is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.