Districts Scramble to Address School Bus Driver Shortage As Impact on Students Grows

school bus driver shortageAs with substitute school teachers, bus driver “subs” are susceptible to student mischief.

“With different, temporary drivers there’s no consistency coming from an authority figure,” says John Gore, a 20-year veteran bus driver for Brunswick County Public Schools System in North Carolina. “Some students think it’s a party day.”

Last fall, Brunswick had 12 open driver positions, about 7 percent of its fleet. Whether it’s absenteeism or a shortage of drivers, Gore says school districts must do more to recruit and retain experienced drivers.

“We carry a most precious cargo,” he says. “The school bus driver shortage happening across our nation affects students above all else.”

To counter the shortage, school administrators are constantly searching for ways to attract drivers. In Brunswick, Gore says administrators posted notices for drivers in school newsletters and on school cafeteria menus. They also purchased a large banner calling for applicants that was hung on a school bus and driven around the county.

“We want to let people know there are permanent part-time jobs available driving a school bus,” says Gore, who is also an assistant teacher for specialized classes at Jessie Mae Monroe Elementary School. “Essentially, we want to identify and hire the most experienced, reliable drivers we can find.”

Nationally, a shortage of bus drivers has school districts as well as private school bus contractors scrambling for ways to recruit and retain drivers. A 2015 survey by School Bus Fleet magazine showed that 92 percent of responding districts had a shortage of school bus drivers. This is a significant increase from 2010 when 71 percent of districts polled stated they had a shortage. Of the 92 percent responding, approximately 18 percent reported a severe shortage while 8 percent stated they were “desperate.” The remaining 66 percent considered their shortages “mild or moderate.”

Even among private transportation service contractors, the survey found that 94 percent of school bus privateers reported shortages in 2015 compared with 85 percent the year before. Among those respondents, 30 percent considered their shortage of drivers “severe or desperate.”

“There are no clear-cut solutions that work in every district,” says Gore. “But for the sake of students, you have to keep at it.”

Needed: More Incentives

In North Carolina’s largest school district, Wake County Public School System, 166 buses have been removed over the past three years due in large part to difficulties keeping drivers on the payroll.

“We’re concerned about the trend,” Transportation Services Director Bob Snidemiller said at a recent Wake County school board meeting. “We’re continuing to lose drivers.”

To counter the shortage, school administrators are constantly searching for ways to attract drivers. In Brunswick, administrators posted notices for drivers in school newsletters and on school cafeteria menus. They also purchased a large banner calling for applicants that was hung on a school bus and driven around the county.

A member of Wake North Carolina Association of Educators (WNCAE), Snidemiller proposes giving drivers a $750 retention bonus this school year because drivers are beginning to look for summer jobs which may cause them not to return in the fall. The proposal involves the use of available funding to give bonuses to drivers who commit to staying on the payroll after the school year ends in June.

In Brunswick, the county reimburses drivers for their commercial license fees and offers bonuses for good attendance — $500 for the first 90 days of the school year and $1,000 for an entire year of perfect attendance. Driving a school bus is typically a part-time job, so bonus pay can help attract drivers, for example, who retired young and are looking for a second career, says Gore.

“I think you may need an age limit or method to evaluate a person’s reflexes and ability to perform well under various weather and traffic conditions,” says Gore, who averages 65 students per run. “In addition to driving safely and meeting a schedule, drivers must know how to handle student disciplinary issues too.”

Compensation Falling Behind

In 2015, most public or privately-employed drivers worked only 2.5 to five hours a day and were paid a mean salary of $15.66 an hour, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Wake County, the starting salary for drivers is $12.55 an hour ($19,327 a year).

After almost 20 years, Gore earns $13.56 an hour for driving a bus, just over the starting salary of $11.93 a new driver earns in Brunswick.

“We use to be compensated under a pay step system,” says Gore, a member of the Brunswick NCAE. “When we changed to an hourly wage system, some of us did not do as well in the long run.”

Gore is behind the wheel of a bus about three hours a day. He says there are two items that would have the greatest effect on retaining bus drivers: “A pay increase and more support from transportation officials and administrators. Drivers need administrators who have your back because kids and parents can say things that may be exaggerated or not include the whole truth. It can put drivers on the defensive.”

Shared Runs Not Popular

Wake county drivers transport more than 75,000 daily riders on 762 buses, down from 925 buses running daily in the 2013-2014 school year. This school year, administrators estimated there were 22,000 bus stops in the mornings, compared to 25,000 last school year. Meanwhile, the number of students has continued to climb.

Some of the changes are the result of making routes more efficient, Snidemiller told the News and Observer. Although, he states in the news article, the system also had to make up for fewer available drivers. While bus ride times are not longer, students are now expected to walk longer distances to get to bus stops.

Finding Solutions
Some districts have embarked on public awareness campaigns that highlight the benefits of being a school bus driver. Some solutions include:
• Signing bonuses
• Benefit packages
• Flexible schedules with limited hours
• Attracting parents as drivers, which allows them to take their children to and from school
• Touting the job as a community service
• Lobbying legislators to reduce the wait time for trained drivers to take the state test

Even with streamlined bus runs, Wake County and other districts across the nation have employed the use of “shared runs” where drivers run multiple routes for the same school. Essentially, the driver will pick up and drop students off at the school and then return to make another run.

According to some educators, shared runs are not popular with high schools, where the wait in the afternoon for drivers to return for the second run can lead to behavioral issues among students.

In a Wake County survey this school year, shared runs were among the items that principals said they hoped would be discontinued. Wake is budgeted to have 850 bus drivers but only has 742 filled positions. Wake has another 20 permanent substitute drivers who are sometimes running daily routes instead of their intended job of filling in for absent drivers.

“I have driven three generations of students,” Gore says. “Parents know me from way back. You can’t substitute that type of relationship between a permanent driver and their students and families.”