Aurora schools seek savings with coaches in the driver’s seat

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AURORA | Upon navigating to the Aurora Public Schools transportation website, it’s hard to miss the glaring call to action.

“Now hiring school bus drivers,” is plastered on the front of the page in searing red. A separate announcement about a $250 bonus for APS staffers who refer a bus driver hangs immediately below it.

The dearth of school bus drivers in Aurora and other district’s across the metro area is no secret, and it’s a crisis administrators are hard-pressed to solve.

“Our buses even have stickers that say that we’re hiring,” said Patti Moon, spokeswoman for APS. “We continue to look for bus drivers. And it’s not just an APS issue, it’s a problem throughout the Denver metro area. There’s definitely a shortage.”

But beyond doubling down on help wanted ads, one way APS has addressed the ongoing lack of bus drivers and subpar transportation funding in recent years is by encouraging athletic coaches and activity directors to personally drive students to and from games, meets and other gatherings.

For the past several years, Aurora Public Schools administrators have slowly goaded coaches, assistants and other extracurricular activities leaders to drive their student-athletes to and from meets and games using 14-person buses, without receiving additional pay. Athletic directors have encouraged coaches to take a voluntary, three-hour training course to become certified to drive what the district deems “multi-functional vehicles,” which are essentially condensed school buses.

“It’s an inconvenience, but I don’t think we’re asking anything that’s completely unreasonable,” said Michael Krueger, athletic director for all of APS. “We aren’t mandating it or saying you have to do it. We are encouraging it because it makes the most sense.”

Krueger said that although not mandatory, the strongly encouraged policy is primarily a matter of dollars and cents. He said that a trip costing the district $300 on a traditional, 72-seat bus can be slashed to as little as $25 when using one of the smaller vehicles.

“With thousands of trips a year, the cost savings is significant,” Krueger said.

Despite the appealing financials, having coaches drive their own buses can be cumbersome to the individuals actually saddled with the task of driving.

On a school day with a game or event, coaches must retrieve a bus from the APS bus depot at 160 Airport Blvd., drive their team to and from the destination and then deposit the vehicle back at the bus barn later that evening, according to Krueger. He said that schedule forces coaches to either pick up the bus before the school day starts or dip out during a planning period or lunch.

“If our coaches have to leave during the middle of the day to drive from, say, Aurora Central to transportation, it’s a five- to 10-minute drive to get that vehicle, and it does lengthen their day,” Krueger said. “That’s one of the costs associated with that, and we have to weigh that.”

All of this comes without additional compensation, according to Krueger, who said that the practice of driving students around town is common practice in most districts outside of the metro area.

“If you leave the Denver metro area, it’s just an understanding that that’s what you do,” he said.

Coaches and activities leaders at APS are provided annual stipends that vary depending on their years of experience and prevalence of their sport or activity. The top earnings tier includes high school basketball, football and cheerleading coaches as well as leaders for dramatics, band, choir and speech. Those individuals can earn up to 10.5 percent of their overall salary, which is regulated by their level of personal education and length of employment. Assistant middle school coaches fall on the low end of the spectrum with an ability to earn 6 percent of their salary for their extracurricular duties. Stipends for all other activities fall in between 6 and 10 percent.

In the neighboring Cherry Creek School District, there have been no new student transportation recommendations like those at APS put into place in recent years, according to Tustin Amole, spokeswoman for CCSD. However, Amole said that coaches of smaller athletic teams like tennis and golf do sometimes transport their students using 12-seat vans. She said that practice has been in place for several years.

In APS, Krueger said that he is particularly sympathetic to the demands placed on athletic chiefs at the district’s growing band of institutions along Aurora’s eastern periphery.

“The ones I worry about the most are at Vista PEAK because they have to drive a little more,” he said.

However, the practice can have its advantages, according to Jason Elliott, who coaches both boys and girls soccer at Vista PEAK. Elliott said that driving his players allows him to craft better schedules for his varsity, JV and freshman squads that don’t result in one group sitting around for hours while other levels play. He also said that the policy results in more direct funding for his program, which he supports.

“In this day and age, we’re trying to come up with as much money as we can to help scholar-athletes, and this is one way to help us out,” said Rob Varner, athletic and activities director at Gateway High School. “The cost difference between the white bus (and a traditional bus) is astronomical. It’s helping save some of the athletic budgets.”

Krueger said that he believes the practice of having coaches drive will grow in APS and other nearby districts as the metro area continues to balloon in size while the number of professional bus drivers dwindles.

“As we move forward when we hire coaches, yes, you might be expected to transport your team,” he said.