While top-performing teachers, administrators and other school staffers are often lauded for the roles they play in educating students, one Lompoc Unified School District leader suggested that another group of employees also plays a vital — though often overlooked — role.

The district’s bus drivers, who are tasked with transporting many of LUSD’s middle and high school students to and from school each day, among other duties, are critical, said Assistant Superintendent John Karbula.

“We tell our drivers, ‘You’re educators; you’re teachers,’” Karbula said. “For most of our kids, the first and the last person they see every day is their bus driver.”

One of the challenges for LUSD — as well as many other districts around the state and country — is finding and keeping those drivers.

To help identify candidates for a job in which the district faces “a chronic shortage,” according to Karbula, LUSD will host a free one-hour School Bus Driver Orientation at 10 a.m. Friday. Anyone interested in attending the orientation, at which participants will be able to learn about the qualifications and skills required for the job, is encouraged to register by calling 742-3180 or emailing acosta.teresa@lusd.org. A training course will be held the following week.

Frances Lemons, LUSD’s transportation manager, said the district currently needs at least two more drivers to help cover its 19 school routes, as well as restock its roster of substitutes who can fill in for regular routes, field trips and other activities.

“It’s both a rewarding and a difficult job,” Karbula said. “You’re in charge of the safety of as many as 70 kids in a large vehicle — that’s a tremendous amount of responsibility.”

Karbula cited several issues he said he believes contribute to the constant need to attract bus drivers.

Among those are that not only is bus driving a part-time job — drivers in LUSD are only guaranteed a four-hour day, though some are working at or near full-time hours — but drivers also work a split shift with hours in the morning before school and then again in the afternoon after school lets out.

Drivers also face several legal requirements in order to get behind the wheel. These include passing health tests, written and field tests from the DMV and the California Highway Patrol, and entering with clean driving records that don’t include certain offenses, such as any DUI arrests in the previous five years.

Karbula noted that those conditions can limit the pool of potential hires.

“But you have a very wide variety of people, I would say, for whom it’s a very attractive job,” he added. “We have retirees and we have men and women who combine it with another part-time job, so it actually works for them and they do something else in the middle of the day.”

Lemons, who typically holds orientation meetings twice per year, depending on need, also pointed out that the requirements and responsibilities facing potential hires can be too daunting for some.

But, she pointed to some other demographics for whom the job might be advantageous.

“It is a good part-time job for college students trying to finish their degrees, (and) it’s a good job for stay-at-home moms and retirees that are wanting to get a little extra money,” she said. “My retirees and my stay-at-home moms are usually my best employees. It’s hard to make a career out of it, unfortunately, so I think that’s why the shortage is there. But it’s a very rewarding career. It’s a fun job. No day is ever the same.”

To help candidates prepare for the testing that will be needed to secure the license needed for the job, LUSD’s training class will take place from Jan. 22 to Feb. 9. The class will meet from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on certain days over that three-week stretch.

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Although new drivers — whose opening wages in LUSD are between $18 and $22 per hour, depending on experience — typically start as subs and are on the bottom level of LUSD’s merit system for choice assignments like field trips and extracurricular activities, Karbula said the district does its best to locate and suggest other part-time work within the district to its drivers.

“You have to make sure that the schedules work, but we strive to at least offer that opportunity to our bus drivers,” he said. “The more you can do that, the higher your retention rate. When we can say to them that we care about them, which we do, and that we think they’re important, which we do, and that we’re gonna try and make this work for them financially by at least letting them know what other openings exist — I think that’s an important component.”

While bus drivers can carry stress from having the safety of so many children in their hands, Karbula said the impact of the drivers goes well beyond the bus. In line with his stated view that drivers are educators, he said that district officials encourage drivers to learn the names of the students they transport.

“If they know our kids by name and are friendly … that makes a huge difference in the lives of these kids,” he said. “They’ve got an adult that they can trust who knows them by name and sees them every single day. So we really believe that (the drivers) play a huge role in teaching and learning for our kids.”

Potential drivers who attend the orientation are asked to bring an H-6 document obtained from the California DMV as well as a pen or pencil.

Karbula said he was hopeful that candidates understand how the district views its drivers.

“I cannot overstate how important we think these people are,” he said. “I don’t for a moment underestimate the importance of these drivers. They’re safely transporting thousands of kids over thousands of miles every week. They are very appreciated by us. We certainly recognize their value to the school district and their value to kids and families.”

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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