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West Fargo school district bus drivers showed up on 1st day, but driver shortage concerns remain

The first day of school for West Fargo Public Schools was Thursday, Aug. 26.

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School buses make their rounds on the first day of school at South Elementary in West Fargo on Thursday, August 26, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

WEST FARGO — West Fargo school bus drivers did not follow through with alleged threats to not show up for their routes on the first day of school Thursday, Aug. 26, but like many other school districts, West Fargo is still in dire need of more drivers.

Last week, a group of drivers reportedly said they might not show for their assigned routes on Thursday, but after meeting with school district officials on Monday, officials said they were optimistic the drivers would report for work , although they are asking the district to consider wage increases.

Business Manager Levi Bachmeier said everyone showed up Thursday morning for their assigned routes.

West Fargo Transportation Director Brad Redmond said the district has a total of 69 school bus routes. Of those, 29 routes are regular education routes operated by the district, and 16 are special education routes. The district contracts with Valley Bus Company to cover the remaining 24 routes.

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Bachmeier said the district remains seven drivers short of covering every route.

To help cover the shortage, district staff who are licensed to drive bus step in to cover routes, including Redmond.

"We're able to operate, but when we get up to the numbers we are at, it gets very tough," Bachmeier said. "The support staff have to get out in buses. We are definitely very short right now."

Along with ramping up advertisements for the open bus driver positions, the district started a referral bonus program. Drivers who are able to recruit additional drivers can earn a bonus for themselves as well as the person they refer.

"It also recognized the hard work people have been doing in their positions currently," Bachmeier said. "We're continuing to work on a variety of ways to make sure we have personnel support and other incentives to support our team."

Adding to the critical need for drivers is West Fargo's size and large number of rural routes.

Each year, the district buses roughly 40% of the student population, as busing is offered to students who live outside a 0.9-mile radius of their neighborhood school.

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In the past school year, West Fargo school buses traveled more than 600,000 miles, with 273,000 of those miles accounting for rural routes, according to a district report submitted to the Department of Public Instruction, which grants money to school districts to help with the cost of busing. The district gave out just under 700,000 rides, and just under 380,000 were rides to rural areas.

Redmond said DPI labels any route outside the city limits of West Fargo as a rural route.

"So, any bus route in Fargo, Harwood, Horace and Mapleton would be listed as a rural route on our DPI records," Redmond said. "Internally, we consider routes that primarily run on county highways and gravel roads picking up students from farm yards or small rural developments, (for) example Lake Shure, to be considered rural routes."

By the DPI definition, Willow Park Elementary School in Fargo would have primarily rural routes. However, Willow Park is also in the heart of a densely populated area with many multi-family housing units within the 0.9-mile radius of the school.

West Fargo is hiring drivers with a starting wage of about $15.56 to $16 per hour following its classified staff salary schedule for the 2021-22 year. Anyone interested should visit https://www.applitrack.com/westfargo/onlineapp/ or call 701-356-2120.

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South Elementary Principal Jody Sjolin-Nelson escorts students Zoe and Isaac Morrow to the building on a rainy first day of school in West Fargo on Thursday, August 26, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

As the West Fargo editor, Wendy Reuer covers all things West Fargo for The Forum and oversees the production of the weekly Pioneer.
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