Instead of beginning her workday at her office, Waterloo Superintendent Angela Terella completes a pre-trip check on her assigned van.
She picks up her first student and brings him back to Waterloo High School, where he boards a bus bound for Maplewood Career Center in Ravenna. Then she heads back out to pick up the next one. Each afternoon, she does it again, only in reverse.
Waterloo, like a number of other school districts, is experiencing a labor shortage. Typically the district would need eight bus and van drivers, plus three or four substitutes, but Waterloo only has four.
With bus and van drivers in short supply, the district has turned to existing staffers to fill gaps.
Transportation Director Tim Fox and Transportation Coordinator Jasmine Watts are also behind the wheel. They’ll soon be joined by Waterloo Junior/Senior High School Principal Chris Sutton, Elementary School Assistant Principal Adam Brown, and Dean of Students/Athletic Director Mike Devies.
Sutton, Brown and Devies have completed their training to drive school vans. They’ll be on the road in a couple weeks, as soon as the state clears their paperwork. Waterloo also relies on Amy McClellan, a teacher’s aide who doubles as a van driver.
“We have to get creative,” Terella said. “We look at combining some routes, but that lengthens the times the kids are on the bus, or we see if some of the kids can get picked up by vans, or we see if the parents are willing to drive them.”
The new duties add about two and a half hours to the beginning and end of her day, but Terella is more bothered by not being able to greet students at the beginning and end of each school day.
Terella plays down her get-it-done decision to step into an extra role. Not many people even know she’s driving students. Anybody would do it, she insists.
“Waterloo is a very small school district. It is pretty common practice for everybody to help each other out,” she said. “For me, it just is an offer to help somebody out. Our transportation director and our transportation coordinator are working very, very hard, and they are wonderful people. When you see people like that, much like our teachers, so committed to the district, I think it’s natural human nature to want to do what we can to help them as well.”
Terella isn’t certain what’s behind the driver shortage. Pay? Covid retirees? Market conditions? Whatever the case, she and her staff are making it work.
“They step up for me all the time. They help me out all the time. It just is a special place to work, she said. “The district is the priority, and we’re here to service our families and kids. You have to do what’s necessary in order to make that happen.”
Unless the district attracts more drivers, Terella may train for her CDL license this fall so she will be able to drive buses as well as vans.
Even completing van driver training has given Terella new appreciation for her transportation colleagues.
“Everybody does what they need to do out here,” she said. “I promise you it’s not just me. Waterloo is a very special place, and we’re looking forward to a really wonderful school year with our staff and our students, and to experience continued growth, so we really need support in November.”
Despite not having passed a levy in six years, Waterloo has expanded course offerings and brought back some community events. To keep that momentum going, the district has a new levy on the November ballot: a 1.5% earned income tax that will not impact people’s retirement accounts.
Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.