Parents grapple with busing procedure as Washington County School District faces driver shortages

Stock photo | Photo courtesy of Ernesto Eslava/Pixabay, St. George News

ST. GEORGEAs the unofficial bus driver for Gunlock, Judy Leavitt shuttles K-12 students from her community to and from school for hours each weekday.

Judy Leavitt, a Gunlock resident, spends hours each school day driving neighborhood kids to their schools in Ivins, Santa Clara and St. George, Sept. 8, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

“I leave Gunlock at 7:15 a.m. with all the kids,” Leavitt said. “I drop off at Lava Ridge Intermediate at 7:40 a.m., Snow Canyon Middle at 7:55 a.m. then hang out at a park for 30 minutes until I take the rest of the kids to Red Mountain Elementary. I leave at 1:30 p.m. to pick up at Lava Ridge at 2 p.m., then (run) errands, SCMS at 2:50 p.m., more errands, Red Mountain at 3:30 p.m.. then home at 4 p.m. I also work two jobs in between.”

Leavitt, affectionately known as “Grandma” to her passengers, is a long-time Gunlock resident who decided to step up and fill a need in her community. Instead of a large yellow bus, her vehicle of choice (and necessity) is a maroon Chevrolet Express – one purchased with the express intent to help haul more children on the daily trips.

While she said she’s happy to be able to help the children in need, Leavitt hopes for the eventual return of Washington County school buses in Gunlock. 

Buses used to come out to Gunlock for each elementary and secondary school students, but the high school bus was discontinued about eight years ago and the elementary school route stopped about three years ago, Leavitt said.

According to the guidelines of the Washington County School District and the general rules for the state of Utah, a bus route can be established to any community with a group of 10 or more students attending the same school.

The Leavitt family bought this large passenger van several years ago to help transport more kids to school, Gunlock, Utah, Sept. 8, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

There are 25–30 school-age children in Gunlock, but they are spread between seven different Washington County schools. Steven Dunham, communications director for the district, said the 10 student requirement is more of a soft guideline, and the district also has to take into account the mileage buses will travel and the cost to taxpayers for operating an obscure bus route.

“In areas where we have a route up to a certain point and a person lives beyond that, we will pay them (parents) to get their child to the nearest bus stop,” Dunham said. “It’s more efficient for taxpayers if we pay these families that money and they transport their children to school on their own.”

In the case of Gunlock, the nearest bus stop is located on the Shivwits reservation, which is still about 8 miles away.

Dunham said he wanted to clear up any misconceptions and make it clear that residents in Gunlock could drop off their students at the Shivwits bus stop. The district picks up students in Shivwits around 6:55 a.m. (Lava Ridge Intermediate), 7:28 a.m. (Snow Canyon middle and high schools) and 8:30 a.m. (Red Mountain).

It’s not just Gunlock that has faced problems with busing. Dunham said a similar challenge surfaced outside of Hurricane a couple years ago with the Sky Ranch community. Ultimately, the district relied on its compensation program, and parents continue to drive their children to the nearest bus stop.

Other schools with high demand for busing and long routes include Coral Canyon Elementary, Tonaquint Intermediate, Lava Ridge Intermediate and all the Hurricane schools, Dunham said.

Elementary school kids arrive at school from the school bus. Stock image | Photo by Monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Some Gunlock residents suggested the district allocate just one bus for all the community’s students, but the district won’t transport students from different schools on the same bus due to the staggered school start times. 

Intermediate schools start almost an hour and a half before the elementary schools, leaving a sizable group of students unattended and without a place to be until their school opens, Dunham said.

On the other hand, there are parents or guardians whose work commitments or schedule make arranging for the drop-off and pick-up nearly impossible, even at the nearest bus stop.

“The only way I’m able to do it as a single dad is because my oldest son has a driver’s license, but that’s over this year,” said Sean Taylor, a Gunlock resident with three children in local schools (the oldest of which is set to graduate this year).

The loss of busing meant parents had to make arrangements for students they couldn’t pick up immediately after school got out. This led to several Gunlock families enrolling students in out-of-boundary schools, further fracturing the necessary population to justify a bus route.

What’s more, scattering students from a single community among many schools has a social impact, too.

“We’ve got a loss of community and a loss of unity, too,” Leavitt said. “It used to be that kids would have back to school night or a program and everybody in town would go to watch the whole neighborhood in a program, and we don’t have that anymore. The kids don’t play ball together. They don’t do things together.”

Despite the challenges of kids changing schools and the hurdles the district might face in restoring the route, many parents in Gunlock are confident that a return to busing would be effective.

“If parents knew that a bus was available to take them as far as the closest school, they would go with that,” Taylor said. “The percentage of parents sending their kids to an outside school would be really small.” 

In this March 2018 file photo, buses leave the premises of Pine View High School, St. George, Utah, March 5, 2018 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Bus driver shortage

While parents in remote areas of the district have to make arrangements for their children’s daily transportation, some parents in urban areas of Washington County have recently been warned about bus delays for their children.

“We started the year fully staffed with bus drivers, however, we had zero backups,” Dunham said. “As we’ve moved throughout these last few weeks, we’ve had drivers getting sick or taking vacations, which means we’re immediately short-staffed. This got so bad last week where we had to notify parents at the last minute that their children would either have to be picked up by them, or they’d have to wait up to an hour and a half.”

As a result of drivers taking time off – caused in large part by COVID-19 recovery and isolation – the district’s transportation department is extremely short-staffed. Dunham said the district is hoping to hire for 10 or more positions and is seeking applicants over the age of 21 with a driver’s license and a clean driving record.

If hired, new employees will be coached through the process of getting a commercial driver’s license over a two to three week process. Drivers can earn $19.11 per hour for their part-time employment, and can work during the morning shift from 6–9 a.m., in the afternoon from 2–4:30 p.m. or work both depending on availability and demand.

A graphic advertising the need for bus drivers in local schools, file undated | Image courtesy of the Transportation Department of the Washington County School District, St. George News

The situation has grown so urgent that many administrators and other district employees hired for other positions have been asked to fill in several days a week, including last Tuesday.

“Every member of our transportation department that has a CDL is driving a bus today,” Dunham said. “Our transportation director is driving a bus route. Every one of our mechanics is driving a bus. I believe there are only three secretaries that are operating our transportation office because they don’t have CDLs.”

For reference, the Washington County School District transports about 17,000 students every school day, which is comparable to Utah districts with nearly twice the student population of Washington County. Transportation expenses in the 2020-21 school year totaled around $5.35 million in the district.

More information about the job expectations and the transportation department can be found on the school district website.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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