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Scarcity of drivers doesn’t deter new transportation head

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Todd Kelsay is the new Transportation Director for the Mercer Island School District. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Todd Kelsay is the new Transportation Director for the Mercer Island School District.
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School bus drivers are in high demand these days. From Bellevue to Federal Way, transportation administrators have been recruiting with gusto, desperate to fill a thinning district position. On Mercer Island, the man behind this job is new transportation director Todd Kelsay.

“It’s been a while since finding [bus drivers] has been this challenging, and this is true across all districts,” said Kelsay, who took over for retiree Ray Brautigam on July 1. “There are several theories as to why, from the state’s strong job market to the slim hours.”

Washington state is currently enjoying a burgeoning job market, with unemployment hitting a record low of 4.5 percent in June, according to Employment Security Department statistics. But not everyone is thrilled by this good news, especially those — school district administrators in particular — losing employees due to the growing competition.

Yet Kelsay remains sanguine. Although MISD only managed to recruit three bus drivers — they had hoped for at least six — for the 2007-08 school year, the transportation director is determined to make ends meet.

“We’ve already begun training, so the recruiting process is over. We would have loved to have three or four more drivers, but I’m not too concerned,” he said. “My main focus, as director, is to ensure the kids’ safety and keep things as efficient and effective as possible.”

Unless an unexpected number of drivers retire this summer, the district should have enough employees to fill Mercer Island’s 20-plus routes come September. Yet, the district will still be pressed for substitute drivers, which has historically been its biggest problem.

“It’s always hard to find enough subs to cover our regular drivers, and then there are field trips. We need more subs. Otherwise, we have to go with companies like Laid Law, which cost us,” Kelsay explained.

A typical bus driver works four hours a day, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, with the option of driving kids to field trips and sports games. Therefore, it’s essentially a part-time position that offers full-time benefits. And this, according bus driver Bob Bersos, plus a starting wage of $18 per hour, is what draws people to the job.

“It’s a perfect job for old people like myself who want to scale back their life and still work part-time,” the long-time Island resident said. “That’s why a lot of retired people drive. Plus it’s just so much fun, being with the kids and watching them grow up.”

Bersos has been driving school buses since he was 19-years-old. After working as Kitsap County fire-fighter for 22 years, he slipped back behind the wheel four years ago, eager to serve the MISD. Bersos, who raised two children on the Island, is also running for City Council this year.

“I absolutely love the job,” he said. “It’s got good, flexible hours, you work 180 days a year and get every holiday off. The drawback for some people is that it’s only four-hours a day. And when you’re first hired, you’re the lone person on the totem pole, working on-call as a substitute driver.”

This, Bersos believes, may be one reason the district struggles to hire drivers. Another factor, he added, besides the healthy job-market, is that Mercer Island competes with much larger districts, such as Bellevue and Tacoma.

“We’re competing with everyone else in the region. And because those districts have larger routes, they can provide more hours, which means more benefits.”

Once an MISD employee becomes a regular driver, he or she is eligible for basic benefits such as 401K, health care and paid vacation. But most of the Island’s drivers, Kelsay and Bersos agree, do it for the kids.

“It’s a real honor to be working among such great people,” Kelsay says. “We’ve got employees from all over the world, some who have been here for more than 20 years. Once they work on the Island, they don’t want to leave.”

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