Shortages of bus drivers force dramatic solutions

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  • The state’s bus driver shortages have a surprising cause: higher pay for entry-level drivers could make the job less attractive for some longtime employees. #nced

  • “The shortage of bus drivers in North Carolina is real and difficult and in almost every district in the state,” said @KatJoyce66 of @NCASAtweets. Find out what’s going on. #nced

At the start of this school year, Keith Parker, superintendent of Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools, found himself running the district from a different kind of office.

Short on a bus driver, he got behind the wheel and mapped out a route, all to make sure neighborhood kids get to school on time.

“We try to fill the void because if we don’t have a driver and someone calls then one of our drivers has to do triple rides,” he said. “And that means some kids won’t be in school until 9:30 and 10 a.m.… You know, we can’t accept that when we’re an underperforming district with kids who need to learn. ”

The shortage of teachers in districts across the state and nation has captured the attention of many this year, but the need for bus drivers is less discussed.

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators (NCASA), is hearing from districts across the state talking about the issue. Although it’s hard to pin down the precise numbers, she said concerns were coming into her office.

“The shortage of bus drivers in North Carolina is real and difficult and in almost every district in the state,” she said.

And one of the reasons why may surprise some.

In the last budget passed by the Legislature, lawmakers made a move that many applauded: They raised the minimum wage for uncertified school personnel — like bus drivers — to $15 an hour.

Joyce said it was a “helpful and much needed increase”. Unfortunately, this may also contribute to the current shortage of bus drivers.

“We are seeing … what many would see as unintended consequences and additional problems, even from these worthwhile investments,” she said.

Here is the situation: Suppose you are a brand new bus driver. You come into a district and get paid $15 an hour. What about all the bus drivers who came before you? According to Joyce, veteran drivers may not even have hit $15 an hour yet. Or maybe they’re barely above that salary after being on the job for 10 years or more. This means that someone several years younger than them could earn the same or just a little less than them.

“It really creates a morale problem for veteran employees,” she said.

And that’s before we get into the fact that $15 an hour isn’t exactly a competitive salary in a modern market, according to Joyce. Fast food restaurants, big box stores, and other private sector jobs may offer better starting salaries, attracting school district bus drivers.

According to Brian McClung, director of transportation at Rutherford County Schools, competition for employees also takes place within districts.

Previously, there were different levels of pay between uncertified staff, such as custodians, teacher’s aides and bus drivers. But raising the minimum wage essentially levels the financial playing field for all those employees. At this point it comes down to which job is more attractive.

“When they knocked everyone down to $15, what would make someone get on a bus with 50 to 70 kids?” McClung asked.

Not to mention the fact that becoming a bus driver also means having to obtain a special license to do your job.

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McClung said COVID-19 has really contributed to the problem, and not just in North Carolina but across the country. Many bus drivers in his district were retirees, and they left when COVID hit and did not return. One of the ways Rutherford County schools are addressing these issues is by requiring teacher aides to obtain a bus driver’s license and be willing to take routes if necessary.

Marlon Watson, director of transportation for Johnston County Public Schools, said his district has about 253 buses and is short about 20 bus drivers. They also have double-duty employees, which means staff such as teacher’s aides, custodians, and school nutrition workers have to ride the bus lines as needed.

He said the shortages facing the districts are not limited to bus drivers.

“It also impacts… our ability to recruit and retain good mechanics as well,” he said. “So I think salary is definitely an issue. But this is a problem for several positions.

He and McClung said lawmakers need to think about raising the minimum wage. McClung pointed out that bus drivers often only work four hours a day. Whereas $15 an hour might sound good at 40 hours a week. It starts to look different at 8 p.m.

“$15 an hour, four hours a day, that’s no longer viable,” he said.

Kevin Harrison, transportation services section chief at the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI), said the shortage of bus drivers is an ongoing problem.

Gates County bus driver Jimmy Boone delivers learning modules. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

In 2018, the DPI reported to the General Assembly on school transportation issues, and Harrison said the issues then were the same ones the districts are experiencing today. In fact, he said that the problem of a shortage of bus drivers goes back decades.

“It’s a problem with all these employees being paid by the hour,” he said.

COVID-19, of course, exacerbated the problem, but Harrison said it looks like things are “a bit better this year.” He is not sure because the DPI does not receive centralized reports from the districts on their transport problems. The DPI’s role in school transportation is limited primarily to assisting with matters of law and policy.

“It probably varies from year to year, depending on the situation,” he said. “Ironically, perhaps, when the economy is good, it’s harder to find drivers.”

Joyce said NCASA is hearing from districts about all sorts of different ways they’re trying to combat the problem. Some districts are trying signing bonuses. Others ask the staff to take directions, as already mentioned.

She also learns that some district transportation directors are considering administrative changes that might help — for example, having training manuals printed in Spanish so Spanish-speaking workers can come forward.

She said her organization was trying to think about how best to advocate for solutions that might fix the problem. One possibility is to ask legislators to increase the minimum wage as mentioned by McClung and Watson. But while that helps with competition from the private sector, it doesn’t solve the disparity between new hires and more experienced drivers.

“The problem would be if the state would just raise the level and there would be no support to ensure veteran employees are covered appropriately,” she said.

Meanwhile, districts like Elizabeth City-Pasquotank continue to try to fix the problem on the ground.

Parker said he was hesitant to let people know he had been made the backup bus driver. But after the news broke, it actually served as a recruiting tool, luring drivers to the neighborhood. And he also went to some district staff – those with the appropriate license – and asked them to consider taking shifts. The fact that he’s done it before makes them more likely to follow suit, he thinks. And, of course, he is always ready to step in when he can.

“I’m not asking anyone to do anything that I’m not already doing,” he said. “And I told transport that – you know, obviously I can’t drive a bus every day – but if we have a driver calling and I can, I’ll drive.”

EdNC policy analyst Katie Dukes contributed reporting for this story.

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