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Unit 5 may contact governor, National Guard to address bus driver shortage

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School buses operated by First Student line up Wednesday afternoon outside Parkside Elementary School in Normal.

NORMAL — Still plagued by late and overcrowded school buses, McLean County Unit 5 may turn to National Guard members, police and firefighters as possible fill-in drivers and to Gov. Bruce Rauner and other officials for help streamlining the hiring process.

The district's transportation contractor, Cincinnati-based First Student, reports that job applications are up, but it still struggles to hire enough drivers to fully staff its routes.

Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said the district needs drivers who have commercial driver's licenses and have already passed drug tests and security background checks to step in quickly.

“Hopefully there can be some executive action that will allow firemen, police officers and members of the National Guard to solve this problem short term. We need them to be a part of our fleet,” said Daniel. 

Daniel said he’ll meet Thursday with state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, and Regional Office of Education Superintendent Mark Jontry to discuss how to expedite the hiring process. The governor's office could approve an alternative driver certification process, for example, he said.

Daniel said not all members of the police and fire departments have CDLs, but they still already have completed background checks that could shave time off the hiring and training process.

“There are some members of the National Guard (with CDLs) that have to drive large semis,” said Daniel.

“I’m open to any options," he said. "This would be a short-term solution as we gather more drivers and our provider ramps up on the hiring process.”

As of Tuesday, First Student officials had 44 applications for Unit 5 bus driver jobs, but it is unclear how may would be hired. Unit 5 officials said First Student should hire as many drivers as needed to operate buses safely and on time.

"We're seeing incremental improvement," said Chris Kemper, First Student spokesman. "Our application numbers have increased, we have 10 going through training right now and we've hired four drivers in the last two weeks."

Daniel said he’s happy to hear First Student is receiving applications, but it’s a “midterm solution” because training can take four to five weeks.

Daniel also has contacted neighboring school districts for drivers, and the district is working on a contract with Peoria Charter, an intercity bus company, to drive students to extracurricular activities.

Daniel said many districts are experiencing shortages, so there aren’t many drivers available to share. No neighboring district has reported busing problems as severe as Unit 5's.

First Student, which took over busing services from Unit 5’s in-house busing system in 2012-13, reports that it is having driver shortages nationwide. 

To attract applicants, First Student is offering a $2,000 hiring bonus. Applicants must be at least 21 years old with a valid driver's license for at least three years and must pass a background and drug check and physical performance test, according to the company's website.

Starting pay for First Student bus drivers is $14 per hour with five paid holidays and paid CDL training. Those interested in applying to be a driver can call 309-557-4287.

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer


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