Education

Wake County driver shortage affecting school bus service

Buses drop students off for the first day of school at Richland Creek Elementary in the new school building in Wake Forest. A shortage of more than 60 full-time Wake County school bus drivers caused by low pay and bad student bus behavior is leading to delays getting students to and from school each day.
Buses drop students off for the first day of school at Richland Creek Elementary in the new school building in Wake Forest. A shortage of more than 60 full-time Wake County school bus drivers caused by low pay and bad student bus behavior is leading to delays getting students to and from school each day. cseward@newsobserver.com

A shortage of more than 60 full-time Wake County school bus drivers caused by low pay and bad student bus behavior is leading to delays getting students to and from school each day.

School officials say they only have 845 full-time permanent drivers for the 908 buses that hit the road daily. The shortage is having an impact on bus service around the county for the 75,000 students who ride buses.

“We still have some transportation districts that are experiencing service levels that are not consistently where we need them to be as a result of driver shortages,” David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, told the school board at its last meeting.

Neter said administrators are trying to respond to the shortage by looking at means to raise drivers’ pay and address their concerns about student behavior.

Driver shortages have long plagued the state’s largest school system. The starting pay of $11.89 per hour and the split shifts – typically from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. – aren’t appealing to many people.

“It is difficult to recruit and train drivers,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said. “There are other jobs out there for people who have commercial driver’s licenses. I hope we can advocate for better salaries for our bus drivers.”

Wake has about 50 permanent substitute drivers. School officials say that ideally the substitute drivers should fill in for drivers who are absent. Instead, they’re now being pressed into service for routes without permanent drivers.

The 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.

This school year, when Wake heavily modified its routes to save money – including dropping 116 routes and 4,000 bus stops – the shortage of drivers has been noticeable in some cases.

School officials say that a regular driver will be handling Monday’s magnet school run for Holly Springs students going to Washington Elementary School in Raleigh. With substitute drivers handling the route, parent Stephanie Yinger complains that the bus has frequently been returning her children after 5:30 p.m.

“We made sacrifices to be in the magnet school program,” Yinger said. “We know they’re going to be on the bus longer than neighborhood kids. But this is ridiculous.”

Because of the shortage, Neter told the board he’s been meeting with a group of drivers to talk about their concerns.

“We’ve heard two things from them loud and clear,” he said. “One is pay and two, maybe is surprising to you, is student discipline issues on the bus.”

On the discipline side, Neter said it will take a joint effort by drivers, administrators at each school and parents to improve the situation. He said it can’t all be put on the hands of drivers who could have as many as 78 students on board.

“There’s only so much they can do when they’re driving,” Neter said.

On the pay side, Neter told the board that administrators are looking at what can be done to help the school support staff, who got a $500 raise in this year’s state budget compared to $1,000 for state employees.

Neter said that raises for drivers should be considered as part of a districtwide salary study because there are also shortages in other positions.

Kushner said that the driver shortage is one example of why the board asked this year for a $29.1 million increase in local dollars to give all employees a 3.5 percent raise. Instead, the Wake County Board of Commissioners opted to give $3.75 million in raises targeted only for teachers.

“We have a competitive labor market in Wake County so that’s why we placed that as a high priority,” Kushner said of the raises. “That’s reflective in our bus drivers and teachers and other positions.”

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