Driver shortage blamed for changes to Wake County school times

Students load a bus at Hunter Elementary School in Raleigh in 2015.
Students load a bus at Hunter Elementary School in Raleigh in 2015.

It could require some creative strategies to quickly recruit new Wake County school bus drivers to avoid some unpopular proposed changes to school times this fall.

Wake County school administrators recommended Tuesday changing the bell schedules for Apex High, Wake Forest Middle and Apex, Heritage and North Forest Pines elementary schools for the 2017-18 school year. The changes at Apex High and North Forest Pines Elementary are already drawing complaints from parents and students.

Administrators explained that with Wake already facing a shortage of bus drivers that they had to suggest time changes to cope with four new schools opening in August and route changes to accommodate Apex High students relocating to a new campus. The impact of the lack of drivers was unwelcome news.

“We don’t have the resources to do what we know is right,” said school board member Lindsay Mahaffey. “I don’t like this, but we don’t have enough new drivers.”

Board members brainstormed ideas such as contacting community leaders to recruit drivers, offering a premium for drivers to work in some areas and partnering with community agencies and private transportation companies.

Parents can go online to to provide district leaders with their comments on the proposed time changes.

Wake uses a three-tier bus system in which school times are spaced out so that drivers can make multiple runs in the morning and afternoon.

The proposed changes are:

▪ Shift Apex High’s school day 15 minutes earlier, from 7:10 a.m. to 2:03 p.m

▪ Shift Apex Elementary 45 minutes later, from 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m.

▪ Shift Heritage Elementary in Wake Forest 15 minutes later, from 8:25 a.m. to 2:55 p.m.

▪ Shift North Forest Pines Elementary in North Raleigh 90 minutes later, from 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m

▪ Shift Wake Forest Middle 10 minutes earlier, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m.

Wake has 762 school buses on the road each day transporting more than 75,000 riders. Wake has 166 fewer buses on the road than three years ago, in large part because of difficulties recruiting drivers.

School transportation officials have proposed raising salaries for all drivers, including lifting the starting salary to $15 an hour.

But in the meantime, Bob Snidemiller, Wake’s senior director of transportation, said he recommended starting Apex High 15 minutes earlier because students will be traveling six miles further to Green Level High in Cary while Apex High is renovated. He said he’d need 12 extra drivers to continue starting Apex High at 7:25 a.m.

“The only reason there’s a 7:10 start time is insufficient drivers,” said school board member Bill Fletcher.

Snidemiller said he wants to start North Forest Pines Elementary 90 minutes later so that he can have students share buses with Forest Pines Elementary. He said it will free up six buses to serve the new North Wake College and Career Academy opening in Wake Forest.

Snidemiller will report back March 21 on the suggestions from the board. The board is scheduled to adopt the new schedules on March 21 but could delay the vote to April.

Board members warned they might have to accept the recommended changes.

“Staff has squeezed the turnip as far as it can be squeezed,” Fletcher said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui