For the third year in a row, Wake County is taking dozens of school buses off the road and forcing families to adjust to different routes and stops for the new school year.
School transportation officials say they had to change the bus routes again because they were unable to find enough drivers willing to put up with low pay and challenging working conditions.
Wake County students will now have 65 fewer but more-crowded buses than last school year. Those buses will make 3,000 fewer stops.
Wake has 760 full-time permanent bus drivers, compared with 825 last year and 925 in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of students has continued to climb.
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“It’s about matching resources and making sure we have drivers for every route,” Bob Snidemiller, Wake’s senior director for transportation, said in an interview Thursday. “It doesn’t help us to have a route without a driver to drive it.”
For the new school year, school officials estimate there will be 22,000 bus stops in the mornings, compared to 25,000 last school year. Snidemiller said buses will be loaded up even more now.
Although Snidemiller said the changes are mainly the result of the driver shortage, some families are being told it’s for budgetary reasons.
In an email Thursday, Sanderson High School principal Greg Decker told families at the Raleigh school that “budget cuts” will result in several drivers having to make double routes. This means a driver will have to complete one Sanderson route before beginning to get students from the second route.
“These double routes are more likely to be late to school and not get home until later in the afternoon,” Decker told families. “This is likely to occur all year long.”
Parents can look up bus routes online at wcpss.net/Page/174.
Despite the reduction in buses, school officials say they believe service has gotten better in recent years.
But state statistics show that bus ridership in Wake is down, with students walking farther to catch the bus to take longer rides to and from school.
“At some point something has got to give,” said Mike Cole, a North Raleigh parent who is considering driving his daughter to school instead of having her ride the bus. “Somebody has to be more willing to pony up more money for taxes or folks are going to just have to drive to school.
“I’m praying we won’t be one of the people with problems with 60 fewer buses on the road, but somebody will have them.”
Driver shortages have long plagued the school system.
Wake raised pay for bus drivers 3 percent last year. Drivers are slated to get a combined 3 percent raise this year from Wake and the state. The change will raise salary ranges to $12.93 per hour for a beginning driver and $20.50 per hour after 32 years behind the wheel.
People can apply to become a bus driver by going to wcpss.net/careers.
“We’re trying to recruit drivers and we’d love to have a bigger fleet of drivers to put more of them on the road,” said Bill Poston, a Wake schools spokesman. “When the economy is good, it’s much harder to hire bus drivers.”
A lack of drivers was one of the reasons given before the start of the 2012-13 school year to take 52 buses off the road. The buses were reinstated after widespread complaints about service, but the problems were cited by the school board as a reason for firing Superintendent Tony Tata.
But Wake has since reduced the number of buses on the road to well below the level Tata had authorized. As part of an overhaul of the transportation department, Wake hired a team to take over the job of developing bus routes.
Wake has also cracked down on approving requests from transfer students to receive bus service. The district is making families wait before they can request a new bus stop for non-safety reasons, such as to go to an after-school program.
“We believe the improvements that have been made in the system are better serving the families who are using it to get from home to school and school to home,” Poston said. “We’re doing a better job of providing on-time service.”
With schools opening Monday, Wake is urging people to be patient with bus service the first few weeks. But Margot Bennett said bus service at the beginning of school has become more miserable now.
“I’m crossing my fingers and hoping it will be OK,” said Bennett, a Cary parent. “I don’t want my son sitting on a bus with 50 kids that’s been an hour late.”
Changes in Wake bus service
▪ The number of bus riders dropped to 73,224 in the 2015-16 school year. It was 76,081 in 2011.
▪ The average ride time for students increased to 19 minutes in the morning in the 2014-15 school year, up three minutes from 2011.
▪ The average distance to the bus stop increased to 722 feet in the 2014-15 school year, up 75 feet from 2011.
▪ The percentage of students picked up in front of their homes dropped to 9.51 percent in the 2014-15 school year. It was 12.15 percent in 2011.
Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction