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Busy buses: Bemidji Area Schools looks to hire 10 more drivers

School buses depart from Bemidji Middle School on Monday on their way to take students home. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 2
Marlin Kimmes directs traffic on Monday at Bemidji Middle School as the school buses leave to take students home. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 2

BEMIDJI—A week into the new school year, staff at Bemidji Area Schools' transportation department say they haven't had to cancel an after-school activities bus or a daily route.

The school district maintains about 80 daily routes—generally from a neighborhood to Bemidji Middle School, then a "connecting flight" to their proper school in the morning, then the reverse in the afternoon—and tacks on as many as 10 additional routes for after-school sports or other activities.

That can put a strain on the 85 drivers on file there, and a handful of office staff or fleet mechanics regularly step in to drive a route themselves.

Rob Wicklund, the district's new transportation coordinator, drove a busload of Lincoln Elementary students from the middle school to their homes near the elementary on Monday afternoon, he said. And Greg Liedl, the longtime coordinator who's set to retire at the end of this month, has driven a route or three this year, too.

But Wicklund said transportation staff only ran into a handful of bumps during the first week of classes here, such as students who weren't sure which bus to take after school.

"Just typical first day stuff," Wicklund said. "Nothing scary."

Gene Dillon Elementary, the school district's new home for all its fourth- and fifth-grade students, didn't add or subtract any routes, he said, and staff didn't have to cancel any activity buses or daily routes last week.

The department still needs at least 10 additional drivers, Wicklund said. That's been a chronic problem for a few years, now. Staff have hung banners, advertised in the Pioneer and on social media, and taken to Bemidji Area Schools' website to lure new hires. Some also wear shirts around town that say "Ask me about driving bus for us."

It's hard to say why there's a bus driver shortage, Wicklund said. Some potential drivers might be intimidated by the size of the buses, and others might be worried about discipline and behavior issues on their routes, he guessed. Bus drivers also have a large break between their morning route and evening route, which can be a turnoff.

Wicklund stressed that the district offers training and staff to overcome those sorts of obstacles.

"Really, for any misconception or fear that's there, we can answer that," he said.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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