Elizabeth Key

During the past few years, Roaring Fork School District children have circled the Valley on ever-lengthening bus routes. After years of the pandemic-inspired “mommy bus,” I recently returned to the school bus system. I was shocked to discover that a seven-minute car ride can take up to two hours on the bus. I imagined my children living on the bus, sometimes sitting together and other times apart, the metronome of their lives ticking with the bumps and stops along the way.

As a working mother, I can see these extended bus routes as an answer to the childcare crisis, the bus safely and affordably transporting my children home to arrive at the end of my workday, but at what cost?

My children’s bus driver, Gene Schilling, has been driving a school bus for the past 41 years. He retired as the Carbondale police chief in 2020 after serving the force for 37 years, working both jobs in tandem. He currently finds driving his grandkids to and from school the highlight of his long bus driving career. He also has lasting associations with many locals, which he attributes to his public service.

“The original reason I started bus driving, many years ago, was because of the police. I wanted kids to see the police in a different light,” Schilling said. He often sees those kids around the community, and some are now as old as 58. “When I was in the police, I used to have them come to talk to me when there were problems within their family unit.

Schilling’s mornings begin with waking up at 3:30am to leave the bus barn by 5:30am. His 71-seat, K-12 bus takes two loops up to Marble and Redstone and then does a Carbondale loop. In the afternoon, Schilling sometimes doesn’t get home until 6:30pm. He said that Carbondale and Basalt used to have five bus drivers, but now it is just him and his brother.

“In Basalt, there are places where they used to provide bus service, but they are no longer able to provide that bus service because of the shortage of drivers,” Schilling said.

Jared Rains, Roaring Fork School District transportation director, graduated from Roaring Fork High School in 1994 and had Schilling as his bus driver. He recognizes the acute staffing deficit and said the district is sensitive to communities’ needs.

“When we’ve had to cut service,” Rains said, “we look at that neighborhood closely and think, are these students that don’t have another way to get to school besides the school bus, or are they living in a neighborhood with more resources where a family might have multiple cars and be able to drive those students to and from school?”

Rains stated that the district used to hire drivers part-time with a single route, offering less than four hours of work per day. Due to the driver shortage, they have combined activity and bus drivers to provide employees with full-time hours and access to health insurance and affordable housing benefits. Even with the augmented pay scale and benefits, hiring dedicated school bus drivers remains challenging. In 2019, there were 27 bus routes.

Now, “We have nine routes out there,” Rains said. “I feel I could double that and still have at least half our people working full-time and be able to provide more service to more neighborhoods, which would mean shorter routes.”

As the children of the Roaring Fork Valley ride on this merry-go-round of a bus system, the district strives to make their commute more productive. Certain routes, such as Marble and Missouri Heights, lack cell service, leaving technology-driven students in the dark to do their homework on the lengthy remote routes.

“We have also looked at technology improvements we could add, piloting putting wifi on some of our buses and seeing what that could add to the capability for students to log in to their programs and do their schoolwork,” Rains said.

Turning buses into mobile virtual learning labs can undoubtedly provide opportunities for children to complete homework, if not distraction from monotony. Still, it doesn’t compensate for the lost time with families. The precious few “witching hours” parents get to bond with our kids should not be stripped from us at the end of each day. Loss of family time comes at its own social, emotional and intellectual price.

“We need more drivers,” Rains said. “That would change everything. Every single person we add to this small team changes our capabilities tremendously. If there are people that want to answer that call and drive school buses, that would make a huge difference.”

Colorado ranks low in educational funding, and Rains encourages the public to talk to their state and federal representatives about augmenting educational budgets. While the Roaring Fork School District pays drivers competitive wages, the cost of living in the area outstrips many salaries. A multi-pronged approach and innovative solutions are needed to shorten our kids’ commutes.