Experts blame lack of affordable housing for lack of school bus drivers

The help wanted sign is out at the San Jose Unified School District. Even so, officials admit having trouble hiring employees for one type of important job in particular--school bus drivers.

Isabel Contreras-Iorizzo left a lucrative job driving vehicles at Stanford University four years ago, to get behind the wheel of a bus for San Jose’s school district.

“I enjoy working with kids, and I enjoy the people I work with,” she said.

But district officials said finding the next “Isabel” to hire has become a proverbial needle in a haystack.

Transportation and Fleet Services Manager Corrin Reynolds said he currently has 15 driver openings. The shortfall impacts 85 bus routes, and students.

“If we don’t have enough drivers, even if I’m not on the road, they’re having to double up on the routes so that we can get the kids to and from school safely on-time. But in some cases they’re not, at the scheduled time. They may be a few minutes late,” said Reynolds.

The problem of running with a shortage of school bus drivers isn’t just impacting San Jose. Districts from Santa Clara to Hayward to Mount Diablo reportedly all have shortages, ranging from mild to severe.

Experts say this type of shortage is blamed on another shortage – of affordable housing.

“I’m actually shocked that it took this long to be this serious,” said San Jose State University business professor Robert Chapman Wood.

Wood said the foundation for current troubles dates back to the 1980s, when housing construction was stifled. Fast forward three decades and there’s a building boom, but it’s still not keeping pace with demand. That’s pushing housing prices higher, and making it harder for available workers to stay.

“We’re in for continued serious problems as a result of lack of housing,” said Wood.

31-year SJUSD driver Theresa Vallejo will be on the move soon. Months shy of her 32nd year, she’s leaving for a job paying more money.

“I’m lucky enough to own a home here in San Jose. And I need to keep that home,” she said, admitting it’s difficult to leave coworkers who’ve become like family.

District officials hope the offer of a job, and $18-to-$24 starting pay plus benefits is enough to lure those looking at tech shuttles to consider their school district. But starting next week, its deficit of 15 drivers grows to 16.