A number of New Jersey school districts are experiencing a shortage of bus drivers as the new year gets underway, according to Ray Kuehner, president of the School Transportation Supervisors Association of New Jersey.

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"They're struggling to get routes. It seems to be impacting mainly athletic and field trips throughout the state," said Kuehner, who also serves as the Transportation Supervisor for the North Brunswick Board of Education.

Kuehner could not name specific districts, but said he has been in touch with several statewide and said athletic directors are communicating with one another to adjust schedules to meet the needs of the players to perform their games.

"You're seeing a lot of school districts forming relationships that try to help out neighboring school districts as much as they can. Hopefully, it doesn't impact that the parents have to transport. It's really tough, especially with high school athletics. They're usually 4 p.m., games, and a lot of parents are working and they're trying just to get to the game, so it really becomes a difficult task to get the students there," Kuehner said.

Districts also are working with bus contractors throughout the state to do the best they can to lessen the impact, but finding qualified bus drivers has always been tough, according to Kuehner.

"Not everybody fits the bill, and what makes it even tougher over the past 18 months has been the Federal Motor Carriers have changed the pre-trip inspections for CDL drivers, which affected school bus drivers," Kuehner said. He added that with the oinspections being more rigorous, "we're seeing a higher failure rate, as far as drivers going to take their CDL and get their school bus endorsement as well as their passenger endorsement."

In the past, drivers had to do those things, but Kuehner said a process that used to take two to three months to get a bus driver through the system is now taking as long as six months, and in some cases up to 10 months.

"It's for the safety of the children throughout the state, so it's a learning curve," said Keuhner.

e added that the driver trainers for both bus contractors and school districts have been in contact with the Motor Vehicle Commission to find out exactly what they need to be putting into their training program so that the success rate increases.

"We're seeing a slight increase over the past month or so of drivers getting through, but what happens is if the drivers go through the process and they fail the test, they have to get a retest date, and the retest date is where your winding up with the backlog," Kuehner.

Kuehner estimates there are over 2,500 public school bus drivers in New Jersey for the state's 671 districts.

"Some districts obviously do not have school busing, but the majority of them do," he said. He also estimates there are at least 100, and possibly as many as 120 private bus contractors in New Jersey.

School bus drivers usually have a few routes each morning and afternoon, with a few hours of downtime in between, and Kuehner said, "it used to be the perfect position for a retired individual, but now it's becoming a lot tougher because there are more demands placed on the drivers."

All applicants must pass state and federal fingerprint and background checks before they can get behind the wheel of a school bus, carrying as many as 54 students.

Contact reporter Dianne DeOliveira at Dianne.DeOliveira@townsquaremedia.com.

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