MARIETTA - For more than 30 years, Cheryl Thomas has been a licensed school bus driver in the Frontier Local school district, sometimes doing the job full-time, sometimes substituting while working as a librarian or teacher's aide.
Although she is now the Frontier High/Middle School secretary, Thomas often finds herself behind the wheel of a bus once again, "about three days a week anymore," she said. "You finish up your one job and go right on to the next."
It's a common problem in many area school districts, particularly with the opportunity for better pay, more hours and guaranteed work drawing individuals with commercial driver's license (CDL) certification to the growing oil and natural gas industry. Several districts have been running ads for substitute drivers with limited success, if any, and announcing at board of education meetings that they're hiring.
With four district employees who can be called upon when one of their 14 regulars can't make a route or a field trip or athletic event overlaps their regular rounds, Frontier is looking for more substitutes.
Still, that's four more than Belpre City Schools can tap.
"We are having a dickens of a time," Belpre Superintendent Tony Dunn said. "We are in the process of training some substitute bus drivers, but they are not through the process."
Belpre had one employee who could sub as a driver, but he's been pressed into regular service while a regular driver is deployed overseas with the military, Dunn said. That has resulted in a couple occasions when drivers had to double up on a quicker route if another driver couldn't make it to work.
"The first bus to get done goes back and picks those kids up," Dunn said. "It puts kids behind in the morning. ... Those kids get home 25 to 30 minutes later than they normally do."
Belpre also lost one driver recently to another school district that pays a higher starting hourly wage.
"They go where the money is," said Steve Snider, Belpre's head mechanic who also drives a bus route.
Kidder said Frontier has one additional sub, who is not a district employee, now being trained. At last week's board of education meeting, Kidder said he's looking at ways to make the substitute job more appealing.
Frontier already offers the highest hourly wage - $12.50 - for substitute drivers in the county. However, the district does not currently pay for training and licensure or reimburse drivers for any of those expenses.
"What I don't want to do is invest $300 into somebody and then (have) them walk on me," Kidder said.
That's why he is considering offering people who go through the training and get licensed a reimbursement for a portion of their expenses after they have worked for the district a certain period of time. That's the approach taken by the Fort Frye, Warren and Wolf Creek Local school districts.
Morgan Local Schools has seven drivers on the district sub list, but three of them aren't currently available, Superintendent Lori Snyder-Lowe said. Of those who are, "they may choose or may not choose to drive based on their personal commitments for that day," she said.
Although there are some district employees with CDLs that can be called upon in a pinch, the district recently sent a letter to parents notifying them that due to the shortage of subs there could be cases where some of its 26 routes have to be doubled up if there aren't enough drivers.
Snyder-Lowe said she can't attribute the shortage to any particular factor.
"We seem to have trouble with this on an annual basis," she said. "I could use as many (drivers) as I can get."
The Fort Frye Local district has two subs on its list and recently made an effort to recruit more, placing ads, sending a letter home with students and emailing staff members, Superintendent Stephanie Starcher said. Two people are now in training, as a result of that, and some employees have decided to get their CDLs.
"We appreciate the willingness of our employees to do this," Starcher said.
As the board of education prepared to reinstate high school busing earlier this year, Warren Local Schools officials expressed some concern over having enough drivers to cover the additional routes and enough subs.
Most of those hired came from the substitute pool, but Superintendent Kyle Newton said the district has been "lucky" to find four additional subs and have three more in training.
"When we get seven, that will be great," he said.
Newton noted it isn't possible to hire just anyone to be a driver. Snider said 12 hours of driving time without students aboard is the minimum amount required for someone renewing their certification, and the process is longer for a first-time driver.
That training time puts an extra burden on employees like Snider, who also serves as the district's on-board instructor, Dunn said.
Marietta City Schools has a half dozen subs, but two are police officers who can only drive buses when they're off duty and a third is only available for afternoon routes, said Dave Davis, transportation, buildings and grounds manager for the district. He said he'd like to have eight to 10 available and noted there are three in training right now.
Wolf Creek Local Superintendent Bob Caldwell said that district has four substitute drivers, which is enough to meet its needs.
"Right now, we are in as good a shape as we've been in the last three or four years," he said.