Wake County school transportation leaders want to sharply raise salaries to stem an alarming drop in the number of bus drivers that have forced changes in the way buses operate in North Carolina’s largest school district.
Wake has taken 166 buses off the road in the past three years, in large part because of difficulties retaining and recruiting drivers. With the trend potentially getting worse, Bob Snidemiller, senior director of transportation, proposed Thursday giving drivers a $750 retention bonus this school year and raising starting salaries from $12.55 an hour to $15 an hour this fall.
“We’re obviously concerned about the trend,” Snidemiller told school board members. “We’re continuing to lose drivers.”
School bus service in Wake has undergone major changes in the past few years, with routes and stops being changed for the more than 75,000 daily riders. Wake had 928 buses running daily in the 2013-14 school year compared to 762 today.
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Snidemiller said some of the changes were because of making routes more efficient. But he said the system also had to make up for the fewer number of drivers available.
Bus ride times aren’t longer, Snidemiller said. But he said students are now expected to walk longer to get to bus stops.
Snidemiller also pointed to the use of 120 “shared runs,” where drivers run multiple runs for the same school. The driver will pick up and drop students off at the school and then go back to make another run.
“It was a way to be able to get students to school on time – which is what we’re charged with – with the number of bus drivers we have,” Snidemiller said.
Snidemiller acknowledged that the shared runs aren’t popular with high schools, where the wait in the afternoon for drivers to return for the second run can lead to behavioral issues among students. In a survey this school year, shared runs were among the items that principals said they hoped Wake would discontinue.
Wake is budgeted to have 850 bus drivers but only has 742 filled positions. Wake has another 20 permanent substitute drivers who are running daily routes instead of their intended job of filling in for absent drivers.
One of the problems, Snidemiller said, is that drivers can earn more money working for places such as GoRaleigh. He said many drivers leave after only the first two years.
“I want to have the most experienced folks out on the road that I can,” Snidemiller said. “Experience matters.”
Snidemiller told school board members he wants to offer the retention bonus this school year because drivers are beginning to look for summer jobs, causing many of them not to return in the fall. The proposal is to use available funding to give bonuses to drivers who remain on the payroll when traditional-calendar schools end in June.
But long term, Snidemiller said he wants starting salaries for drivers to be $15 an hour, something it would now take 13 years for a driver starting at $12.55 an hour to reach. He said the raise would lift the starting annual salary to $23,100, up from the current figure of $19,327. He wants to give a raise to other drivers, too.
The school board’s finance committee told administrators Thursday to keep working on both the bonus and the higher starting salary. But Superintendent Jim Merrill warned he might have a hard time funding the higher salaries if the state doesn’t give more flexibility on K-3 class size reductions that could force Wake to hire hundreds of more teachers.