NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– New Hanover County Schools is navigating through a bus driver shortage that is prolonging the time it takes for students to get to and from school.
Though the district has consistently struggled to recruit bus drivers, the pandemic exacerbated the issue, also affecting public school systems nationally. In Massachusetts, 250 national guardsmen were deployed to bus driving duties. One teacher in the northern state went viral after sharing the school ordered a party bus, equipped with dancing poles, to take students on a field trip. Now South Carolina and other states are considering tapping into the National Guard as well.
Before the pandemic, NHCS had around 150 drivers operating buses, including about 10 office staff members who conveniently held a commercial driver’s license.
“When we are short, we will pull anybody and everybody to drive a bus to get these kids to school,” said Mark Clawson, director of transportation for NHCS.
Now the transportation department is making it work with 50 fewer drivers. Before, NHCS was picking up students closer to their homes and stopping more frequently. It has since been forced to adapt as the driver shortage continued by redesigning routes to cut down on the number of drivers required. Clawson now considers the system to have just 30 vacancies rather than 50.
Fewer drivers are needed since buses are spending less time circling through neighborhoods. Drivers now service “community stops,” central locations such as a swimming pool or clubhouse where students wait for pick up. The change has reduced the number of miles traveled daily by about 25%, Clawson said.
“We don’t drive deep in neighborhoods,” Clawson said. “The deeper you drive, the more times you’re stopping, you’re turning, you’re stopping, you’re turning.”
The drivers are also conducting “double runs,” which is when they transport a bus full of kids to school, then go back out to pick up a second group to take to the same campus.
“The double runs are making up the difference between an extra body that would drive that bus had there been another driver,” Clawson said.
Yet, children are still showing up to class tardy. NHCS is averaging about nine late buses a day. Luann Cadby, an office support associate at Career Readiness Academy at Mosley, said her students are regularly late since her school doesn’t start until 9 a.m. and the other schools, which start earlier, are prioritized.
“Sometimes they’re done with their work at 3:30 but usually from 4 o’clock on, they just wait,” Cadby said. “Sometimes it’s 5:30.”
That includes students with disabilities, she said. When those students sometimes arrive half an hour late to school, it cuts into the instructional hours that are laid out in their individualized education plans.
Clawson explained students who live closest to their schools are usually taken home first, and then drivers do a second run for the students who live farther away.
“Invariantly, somebody is always last,” Clawson said.
Clawson doesn’t predict the district will have all 130 positions filled anytime soon.
In a year and two months, NHCS has hired 20 new drivers while simultaneously losing the same amount. The district hosted two job fairs just this fall, securing seven new drivers and progressing three candidates to the final steps. But many drivers wind up leaving to change careers, often for higher pay.
Bus driving starts at $14 an hour in NHCS, with full-time benefits. It isn’t always an attractive job; navigating a giant yellow bus while being responsible for a large group of children is an intimidating task.
“It’s actually a pleasant experience, but I think it’s one of those experiences that, unless you actually get a chance to experience it, you’re afraid,” Clawson said.
Earning the certification to drive a bus is also a significant time commitment, which may deter some potential candidates. The process stretches two to three months and includes taking a class, passing a written exam and proving to a DMV examiner that they can operate the bus and passenger stops safely.
NHCS will hire candidates in the midst of their journey to obtaining the license. If they pass the first exam, they can become a “bus aide” and drive empty buses under a learner’s permit to prepare for the final test.
“So when they get behind the wheel with the examiner, it’s not for the first time,” Clawson said. “They’ve had the ability to spend some time behind the wheel, and get used to operating the bus and learning all of its intricacies because there’s a lot to it.”
Over the past year, NHCS has also tried to entice applicants with a $1,000 sign-on bonus, paid out after 120 days of driving. Current employees can also earn $1,000 if they find a candidate for hire. Of the 13 drivers recruited last year, more than half were referrals.
Comparatively, Wake County Schools is paying a $1,200 hiring bonus and Durham County Schools is offering $4,000. Down 130 drivers, Durham also recently upped its starting pay for the positions to $16.25, and veterans who have been there 30 years must earn at least $20.50.
Statewide, the North Carolina Association of Educators is pushing for a $15 minimum hourly wage for bus drivers. Currently, drivers are paid $12.75 through the state and the local school districts provide supplements. In June, New Hanover County increased property taxes in part to fund raises for school system employees, making the district’s teachers the highest paid statewide. The raises did not include increases for non-certified staff.
Drivers can earn more money in NHCS by taking up overtime driving for afterschool programs –– NHCS has enough work to go around, Clawson said –– but that means sacrificing personal time. Clawson estimates about 20 drivers are choosing to work 50-plus hours each week right now.
Port City Daily inquired about potential discussions for raising pay but did not receive a response by press time. The board of education approved a budget plan that proposes the district moves to $15 an hour by the 2022-23 school year. According to emails obtained, board of education member Judy Justice requested in late August the board discuss bus driver pay and transportation goals at an upcoming board meeting. She asked Hugh McManus, who also expressed interest in moving to $15 sooner than anticipated, to second her request, which is necessary for a board member to place an item on the agenda.
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