McHenry County school districts continue struggling with bus driver staffing as new year approaches

Majority of districts in the county need five to 20 drivers, official says

A drivers wanted sign is hung on the side a parked school bus in front of Upper Campus of McHenry High School on Thursday, July 27, 2023.

Outside of McHenry High School, a school bus is parked out front by the entrance. A giant “drivers needed” sign hangs across the bus.

McHenry High School, part of District 156, is one of many schools scrambling to fully staff school bus drivers for the upcoming school year.

Another bus parked on McHenry Avenue in Crystal Lake advertising an increased starting pay of $22.92 for drivers has been an “effective” marketing tactic, District 47 director of communications Kari Firak said.

Crystal Lake’s Transportation Joint Agreement, which transports students in Crystal Lake District 47 and Crystal Lake and Cary’s District 155, has a shortage of 19 drivers currently for their 114 buses.

Tracy Hodgson, District 47′s director of transportation, said her office needs 80 drivers to be fully staffed; they currently have 61. This is a slight improvement from last year, when they were down 25 drivers at the start of the 2022 school year, Firak said.

“If we can hire 10 people here at the beginning, I would feel good,” Hogsdon said.

Though some districts may have shortages, hiring numbers are “changing by the minute,” said Diana Hartmann, McHenry County’s regional superintendent of schools.

Two districts are fully staffed and the rest of the 18 districts in the county need between five to 20 drivers, she said. Numbers can look a lot different between now and the first days of school across the county, as districts increase hiring efforts.

“This is a huge crunch time,” she said. “Maybe about after Labor Day, then we can see where the numbers are.”

Prairie Grove-based District 46, a small K-8 school district outside of Crystal Lake, has sustained bus driver shortages recently, and is starting off the school year with one driver position unfilled.

Sometimes transportation office staff drive buses when drivers are short, said Trina Downs, the District 46 transportation specialist. Downs drove the bus last year to assist with staffing.

“I’m pretty sure I will be,” Downs said when asked if she will be driving the bus again this year.

Even though Prairie Grove continues to struggle with bus driver retention, Downs has an optimistic outlook.

“We’ll figure it out,” she said.

Richmond-Burton District 157 and Nippersink District 2 share a transportation office to cover Richmond and Spring Grove. Like Prairie Grove, their staff also will fill in empty driver positions.

Over the summer, they hired some new bus drivers, but are still searching for extra drivers to have on hand, a District 2 transportation spokesperson said.

Other districts have seen improvement since last year.

Dave Shepherd of Cary’s District 26 said that the district has fared better than some other school districts in the area, but still has a couple of bus driver openings.

“We have a very devoted staff,” he said.

District 300, which covers towns in Kane, McHenry, Cook and DeKalb counties, has a full staff to operate about 200 buses. The district contracts Durham School Services to provide buses and drivers.

Kelly Avise-Rouse of Durham said that increased pay has helped get their team to be fully staffed. Right now, the company will not have to merge or adjust any routes, and he hopes it will stay that way for the entire school year, he said.

“I would say we are doing better than last year,” Avise-Rouse said.

Anyone can apply to be a school bus driver with Durham since they provide training and testing to receive necessary licenses.

Hartmann also encourages anyone interested in working as a school bus driver to reach out to their local district.

“It might be a little better, just a slight tad,” Hartmann said when comparing staffing needs to last year. “We’re probably in about the same place.”