District bus driver shortage impacts preschool start times

Like many school districts nationwide, the Lake Washington School District is facing a bus driver shortage and it’s having an impact on preschool start times.

The impact is challenging some parents to make last-minute adjustments to schedules that have been set for more than a month.

SCRAMBLING AND LOSING FOOTING

Brena Gattuccio is one such parent.

Her four-year-old son attends a developmental preschool program. The program is at Alexander Graham Bell Elementary School in Kirkland. Gattuccio’s son also goes to a number of private therapies, which are scheduled around his preschool.

So when Gattuccio received a letter from the district just three weeks before the start of the new preschool year on Sept. 14, announcing a 90-minute adjustment to start times, she scrambled.

“This was just a huge monkey wrench in our lives. It’s kind of been a nightmare,” she said. “Every single one of our therapies has had to be just stopped or rescheduled because of this.”

Carissa Robinson is another parent struggling with the change.

Her son, Caleb, 4, has a rare genetic diagnosis and autism that complicates his development, and he also must attend many private therapies that keep him on a strict schedule.

“Our schedule for the fall has been set for the last month and a half,” Carissa Robinson said.

All of his therapies are planned around preschool at Juanita Elementary School.

When Robinson received the letter that announced preschool would start 90 minutes later than it normally had, she struggled to work out a new fall schedule.

As it is, there’s no way Caleb can attend preschool in the morning, as he had previously done, she said.

“We have not figured out how that one’s going to work yet,” Robinson said. “We’re afraid of losing footing by giving up this year.”

So she’s trying to make some adjustments to his various therapies — and it’s not easy. Most of the therapies have long wait lists, she said. Plus, making a switch could mean losing a provider who has already built a relationship with Caleb.

“In the process, we’re losing currently three therapists who have worked with Caleb for years,” Robinson said.

She understood why the district was making the change — there’s a school bus driver shortage and in order to get all 29,000 students within the district to school on time, something had to change.

A DECISION NOT MADE LIGHTLY

And since there are about 330 students registered in preschool, it was the least impacted decision the district could make, said Beth Pendergrass, director of communications and community engagement with the district.

“The decision (to adjust preschool start times) was a difficult decision and not one that was taken lightly,” Pendergrass said.

But it was the amount of notice Robinson had an issue with.

“We’re frustrated because it shows a complete lack of understanding from the district and they should understand the most,” she said. “They could have been more active in letting the community know of that need six months ago…because now my kid’s at the chopping block and that’s a real bummer.”

But the district hadn’t known it would be in this position six months ago, said Jeff Miles, transportation manager for the district.

The district, which currently employs 90 drivers, saw half of their recruits this summer drop out of training. In the last three weeks, five more have quit for better jobs.

“The goal is always to fill the position so you don’t have to make the change,” Pendergrass said. “It wasn’t that we wanted to sit on it.”

THE DESPERATE CATEGORY

Nationwide, there’s a school bus driver shortage of which 22 percent of private bus contractors call “severe,” according to a recent School Bus Fleet survey of 50 contractors. Five percent of those contractors say they are “desperate” for drivers.

“We kind of fall into the ‘desperate’ category right now,” Miles said.

Last year, there were 101 routes, but due to the driver shortage, there are only 87 routes this year.

“Unfortunately, this shortage is a nationwide phenomenon and not one we can easily solve,” reads the Aug. 23 letter Gattuccio, Robinson and other parents received. “We know this change may require families to make adjustments to their schedules.”

Miles said the adjustment to preschool start times was “the best of bad choices.”

Since the change, the district has heard from many parents about the change. Pendergrass urges parents to contact the district to assist the best they can.

“We do want to do what we can to assist,” she said. “We certainly recognize this is difficult. We do want to help. We don’t want to minimize. It was a tough decision that had to be made.”

If parents have specific questions or need assistance, contact director of special services Paul Vine at pvine@lwsd.org or (425) 936-1201 and preschool program specialist Jodie Jens at jjens@lwsd.org.

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