Some Wake County students will have to catch the bus earlier in the morning or get home later in the afternoon this fall due to a bus-driver shortage that will force schools to put fewer buses on the road.
The Wake County school system is trying to recruit 70 new bus drivers this summer, and it plans to use 17 fewer buses than last school year. So Wake will add 20 “shared runs” where drivers make multiple trips for the same school, according to Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman.
On shared runs, the driver picks up and drops off students at the school and then goes back to pick up more students. Those on the first run get picked up earlier in the morning and students on the second run wait longer in the afternoon to go home.
“The shared runs are not ideal,” Luten said Monday. “It’s something we have to do because of the acute driver shortage. But our ultimate goal is to make sure transportation is reliable and on time, and these changes ensure that.”
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Luten said the new shared runs are spread around the county but will only be placed at schools that have students who live in neighborhoods close to the campus. This makes it easier for the driver to make the multiple runs in a shorter amount of time.
With the exception of the new shared runs, Luten said the “vast majority” of Wake’s more than 70,000 bus riders won’t see any impact of new bus route changes this fall.
Routes for traditional-calendar schools will be posted at wcpss.net/Page/174 on Aug. 18 – 10 days before the start of school.
Shared runs are unpopular. In a survey last school year, they were among the items that principals said they hoped Wake would discontinue.
Luten said the district won’t have as many new shared runs if it has more drivers than expected this fall.
Shared runs are just one of the many things Wake has used to deal with a bus-driver shortage that reduced the number of buses on the road from a high of 928 in the 2013-14 school year. This fall, Wake plans to use 745 buses. The district has also increased bus ride times, made buses more crowded, changed school start times and forced students to walk further to bus stops.
The changes have caused parents such as Karen Carroll to pull their children from the bus. Carroll began carpooling her children last school year when new bus routes would have increased their ride times three hours each week.
“We don’t want our kids on the bus for an hour and a half a day,” said Carroll, a west Raleigh parent. “I don’t think it’s good for little kids to sit on the bus for a long time.”
In the face of the driver shortage, Wake launched a major recruitment campaign this summer that has included advertising on radio, television and Facebook, targeted emails and signs on school buses.
Wake has hosted two bus driver job fairs this summer, and two more are scheduled: from 9 a.m. to noon Aug. 5 at Southeast Raleigh High School and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 17 at Sanderson High School. Anyone interested in applying can also call 919-533-7834.
“We’re putting the pedal to the metal searching the community for qualified, enthusiastic bus drivers,” Luten said.
Wake hopes to have 745 full-time drivers this fall and 60 drivers who can fill in when a driver is absent. The district won’t know until August how many of its drivers are returning and how many of the new hires successfully complete training.
Low pay has been an issue for Wake. The starting salary of $12.55 an hour for bus drivers is less than what people can earn working for area public transportation systems. Wake is looking at using $1.6 million from the new state budget to give raises to drivers.
Wake is hoping to recruit more bus drivers like Ken Pike, 54, who started in October after having worked in information technology as a member of the Geek Squad, part of Best Buy.
“It’s been one of the most fulfilling jobs I’ve had,” Pike said of being a bus driver. “Dealing with the children is fun. It’s an excellent job for someone trying to get away from what they’re doing.”
Becoming a Wake County school bus driver
Prospective Wake County school bus drivers must be 18 years old, had a driver’s license for at least two years and a valid North Carolina license. Go to wcpss.net/busjobfair for more information on how to apply and a list of issues that would make you ineligible to become a driver.