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Horicon school administrators sub as school bus drivers amid driver shortage

Horicon School District Director of Technology drives a school bus to combat the driver shortage
Posted at 5:21 AM, Jan 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-27 08:06:04-05

HORICON — In our series Two America's, TMJ4 is working to expose problems in the community you might not realize exist, while also highlighting the ways our neighbors are working to bring forth solutions.

In Dodge County, school district administrators are playing a role in combating the nationwide school bus driver shortage.

Horicon School District Superintendent Rich Appel, Director of Technology Jeff Williams, and Middle School Principal Mike Lobouton have all taken the courses and trainings to become school bus drivers.

"It's kind of funny, (the students) get on the bus and they’re like 'OK what are you doing here," said Williams.

As Director of Technology for the district, Williams is already a busy man, working to keep students connected and learning amid the ongoing pandemic. But, he says he felt it was the responsible thing to do to get certified by the State of Wisconsin to drive a school bus.

"If they’re going to be able to go to school every day, I think it's our responsibility to make sure they can have the extra-curricular activities that they want. If that means I have to drive a bus after school, then it's not that big of a sacrifice," he said.

Getting trained to drive the big yellow buses wasn't simple, he said.

"The testing procedure, the written test, I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t that easy," said Williams.

His boss, Superintendent of Schools Rich Appel, who has bus driving experience, agreed.

"Much more rigorous than I recall back in the ‘80s when I was driving buses. So, I have a ton of respect for our drivers and I also like that now I know exactly what they have to go through in order to get their license, and kudos to all of our drivers that do that," said Appel.

The administrators say the time and dedication it took to pass the tests was worth it and necessary.

"Kids were missing instruction, we had to cancel some volleyball matches because they were just too far away, kids were missing out on that opportunity," said Appel.

Bus routes were covered by a limited number of hard-working, dedicated and flexible drivers, but the concern was about covering extra routes - during athletic events, field trips, or if one of the drivers was sick or on vacation.

"We have amazing bus drivers here with Johnson Bus, but there just wasn’t enough of them," said Appel.

A survey by the National School Transportation Association found 51% of school districts nationwide are experiencing a "severe" school bus driver shortage.

Recently, Wisconsin's Department of Transportation (DOT) relaxed some of the requirements to obtain the special license needed to drive a school bus. It's a move that Cindy Lucht, who manages the bus terminal, hopes can help her recruit more drivers.

"The DOT did take out the pre-trip part - underneath the hood - and that will hopefully help get more drivers and get more people in to say ‘hey let's go drive!' It could be a mom and kids, or retired people or just a mom, dad who wants some extra money and just help people out," said Lucht.

In school districts across our area, especially in smaller and rural communities, seeing administrators and staff step up into roles beyond their job description is not uncommon.

"We might be subbing as a paraprofessional, we might be serving lunch occasionally, we might be on recess duty, sometimes we’re in the classroom as a teacher but the biggest thing that I think is important is that everybody in this system has done what they need to do to make this work," said Katie Schwartz, Director of Student Learning for the Horicon School District.

Schwartz said this team of administrators in Dodge County has one main priority.

"Keeping the students in school and doing everything we can to provide them with the most stable, consistent environment for learning is our top priority," she said.

It's a story of leaders making sure nothing can stop their students from succeeding amid already challenging times. Not even a school bus driver shortage.

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