Mesquite ISD Shares its Blueprint for Bus Driver Retention
Safely shuttling students from behind the wheel of a 25,000-pound, blind spot-heavy bus has its challenges: heavy traffic, inclement weather, unruly riders, poorly maintained roads. The job isn't for everybody, but it is for Janie Olt of Mesquite ISD.
"I love my kids. I love my bus routes. I may have some bumpy roads, but my kids are amazing," said Olt.
Olt isn't an outlier. Linda Campbell has been building relationships with generations of kids like Manny, one of her favorite backseat drivers.
“He sits back there and hollers, ‘Miss Linda, Miss Linda,”’ laughed Campbell “He always tells me I’m turning the wrong way. Most people don't understand how I could like driving kids. But I really do, or I wouldn't be here 40 years.”
And she certainly wouldn’t have retired and returned a year later!
Olt and Campbell were featured in a driver spotlight series aptly named "Difference Makers." The videos were part of Mesquite ISD's Excellence Award-winning bus driver retention initiative. Along with video spotlights, employees participated in chili cookoffs, crazy hair days, bus rodeos, catered lunches, volunteer activities, and other fun events.
When it comes to making a case for risk management, metrics are your strongest ally. Mesquite ISD’s initiative has produced the kind of quantifiable returns that would get any CFO’s attention. Driver retention has skyrocketed to 90% during the past year, and turnover has dropped under 10%. So, what's the secret sauce?
Moving the Needle
Districts everywhere have turned to financial incentives to close the gap between driver supply and demand. One California district dangled a $10,000 signing bonus last year. Mesquite ISD’s campaign included raises and attendance bonuses, but Teri Mapengo, the district's former transportation director, said what really moved the needle was something less tangible than dollars and cents.
“Employees who are happy at work aren’t necessarily motivated by money,” explained Mapengo. “That’s why we invested in building a positive workplace culture. Making work fun is certainly part of it, but we also want to ensure employees feel heard, valued, and supported.”
Mapengo adds that what started as a driver retention campaign has proven a powerful, grassroots recruiting movement—without the usual budget implications.
“Our employees are our best recruiters,” said Mapengo. “When they’re shuttling students to field trips or athletic events, they tell drivers from neighboring districts how much they love their jobs. Some of those drivers have joined our team. And in some cases, their previous employer paid more.”
Role Models and Mentors
Recruiting is just one example of the trickle-down benefits of boosting morale. We’ve all heard, if not experienced, stories of teachers, administrators, and even superintendents doubling as bus drivers. Mesquite ISD’s enviable employee retention metrics free up the transportation support team to focus on ensuring drivers have what they need to do their jobs. As turnover drops, so do the costs associated with onboarding new employees. And by keeping experienced drivers, the district cuts the costs associated with collisions.
Mapengo also reports that referrals for student behavior are down. She attributes the improvement largely to community engagement events that give employees the opportunity to build relationships with students outside of school.
“When new people come on board, we make it clear they’re more than drivers and monitors. They’re servant leaders and role models in their community,” said Mapengo.
Make it About People
If it all sounds like a return on investment your administration would support, start by identifying stakeholders who can help. For example, a member of the Mesquite ISD maintenance team welded much of the equipment drivers needed to practice for the bus rodeo, and the risk management and training departments secured the safety equipment.
The communications department chipped in by producing employee spotlight videos as well as recruiting videos that bring the Mesquite ISD culture to life.
“You’d think people would be grouchy when they get to work at 5:30 in the morning, but we’re not,” said Mapengo. “We’re giving high fives, and our assistant director is cheering. I want candidates to see what they will be part of when they join our team.”
If your district is looking to launch a similar initiative, Mapengo offers this simple advice.
“Make it about people. Show them you care. Be available to them. Employees who feel supported and valued can grow into ambassadors of the culture you’re building. When culture takes root, everyone wins, including students,” said Mapengo.
About Excellence Awards
The Fund Excellence Award program recognizes members who implement innovative solutions to risk management challenges. Winners receive a plaque, a monetary honorarium, and recognition in Fund and TASB publications.
David Wylie serves as content developer on the risk solutions team. He brings more than 20 years' experience writing educational content that helps employers protect against workplace accidents, property damage, cybercrime, and other losses.