School buses parked in the Salem-Keizer School District lot on Hawthorne Avenue (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Bus driver shortages are a common problem across school districts, but Salem-Keizer’s has gotten bad enough that the district soon may not be able to get some students to school.

The transportation department is about 35 bus drivers short. And so many dispatchers, mechanics and other employees have had to step in to drive buses that some days, there’s only a single person left in the transportation office.

Most bus drivers who work for the district are part-time employees. Other transportation department workers, including dispatchers, routers and mechanics, are trained to drive buses and fill in when there aren’t enough drivers.

That’s supposed to be a backup system but has become a regular part of getting kids to school on time.

Over the first six weeks of school, the amount of time those workers have spent driving routes has more than doubled from the start of last year.

Speaking this week at a meeting of local education and business leaders, Superintendent Christy Perry said she predicts there will be a day in the next two weeks where there aren’t enough available drivers to cover every bus route.

“We are really at a catastrophic point,” she said.

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Salem-Keizer is usually short an ideal number of bus drivers, but two factors are making the shortage especially severe now. The district redid school attendance boundaries this year and added 12 new bus driver positions to accommodate those shifts.

Anticipating a shortage after those changes, district leaders reached an agreement with the Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals over the summer to offer sign-on and retention bonuses for bus drivers, and referral bonuses to employees who recruit new drivers.

New drivers hired on or after July 1 will earn between $500 and $1,000 after 90 days of route-driving, with additional bonuses at six months and one year of employment. District staff can also earn referral bonuses of $500 for recruiting new drivers once those drivers pass a probationary period.

That program has led to an increase in new drivers signing up, district spokeswoman Lillian Govus said, but so far, it hasn’t been enough to fill the gap. Four or five drivers leave the district every month, so they need to hire that many just to stay on top of needs.

An increase in homeless students and students in foster care over the past few years also stretches drivers.

Homeless students can continue attending school in the place they lived in when they became homeless. Federal law requires districts to transport them to that school, even if they’re temporarily staying in another district, to minimize disruption to their lives.

That means some drivers have long routes to neighboring districts to transport a few students in a van or smaller bus.

Because those routes involve smaller vehicles, they don’t require as much training as a regular yellow bus, which requires a commercial driver’s license.

Perry said the district is recruiting among existing part-time staff in other departments who may want to work extra hours driving vans or smaller vehicles. Those require between two and four hours of training.

If there’s a day where drivers can’t cover every bus route, Perry said transportation employees will prioritize routes with the most students on them and let affected parents know.

Perry said district leaders are continuing to talk with the union about other strategies, and haven’t ruled out a pay increase, though that would need to be bargained.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.