GRAND FORKS — After several days of confusion, Grand Forks families were notified on Wednesday, Aug. 25, of their new school bus route for the beginning of the year, which will be provided by the city of Grand Forks during a severe shortage of school bus drivers.
The school district announced on Tuesday evening, Aug. 24, that City Area Transit, the city's regular bus service, will provide free transportation to students in the district while school bus services are suspended. Dietrich Bus Service, the service through which the district usually buses students to and from school, will continue to provide limited transportation to special education students, English Language Learning students and students on the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Families who had already purchased school bus tickets for their children will be reimbursed, according to a statement from Grand Forks Public Schools Superintendent Terry Brenner.
Dietrich informed families earlier this week that due to a severe bus driver shortage, they would indefinitely suspend school bus services in Grand Forks. In the 24 hours following the announcement, five people approached Dietrich to inquire about the process to become a bus driver, Dietrich general manager Brian Yanish said.
Initially he said he had been hopeful the shortage would resolve itself within days, but Wednesday he said he no longer believes that will be possible. He tentatively said he expects the shortage will last roughly a month or two.
"The shortage is not specific to one community," Yanish said. "To be able to say, 'we’re going to be able to fill that in a month,' I can’t positively say that, but I am confident we’ll have people step up."
Dale Bergman, City Area Transit director, said he expects the city will be able to continue providing an interim service for however long Dietrich is unable to.
"At this time, it is not going to be a problem," Bergman said. "We will do what we've got to do on our side to keep the wheels in motion."
Yanish said Dietrich continues to work to hire drivers, and has increased an employee referral bonus from $250 to $500 to try to encourage recruitment. All new employees also receive either a $150 sign-on bonus if they have all their necessary credentials, or a $150 reimbursement for licensing fees.
Dietrich drivers are guaranteed to be paid $30 an hour for the first hour, and $16 an hour for each subsequent hour. That rate was negotiated and approved before the severity of the driver shortage was clear, Yanish said.
He added that he doesn't believe the shortage of drivers in Grand Forks is due to any failure specific to Dietrich — rather, he said, it's an issue plaguing districts across the country. The East Grand Forks School district has also faced concerns of bus driver shortages. East Grand Forks Superintendent Mike Kolness said that bus drivers, who are employed by the district, are still in contract negotiations, but last school year were paid $23.15 per hour while running regular routes.
Dietrich is technically not in any breach of contract with the school district, because they technically do not currently have a contract in place. Every seven years, North Dakota state law requires school districts to put out a request for bids for transportation services, said Scott Berge, the district's business manager. That year happened to fall on 2021 for GFPS, which aligned with the expiration of Dietrich's existing contract.
The request for bid period will expire in a few days, Berge said, but as of Wednesday afternoon, Dietrich is the only company that has submitted a proposal to the district.