Education

Wake’s school bus driver shortage has gotten ‘worse.’ A job fair next week may help.

Parents and students are feeling the impact of the Wake County school system’s difficulty in recruiting full-time school bus drivers.

The Wake County school system has added more students, schools and bus routes this fall but has fewer full-time bus drivers than it did at the end of last school year. It’s forcing the district to rely more on substitute drivers and supervisors to handle the vacant positions.

“We are in worse condition already this year than we were at the end of last year,” Bob Snidemiller, Wake’s senior director of transportation, told school board members this week.

The school system is holding a bus driver job fair on Tuesday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at Carroll Middle School in Raleigh. People with questions can call 919-694-8484.

Wake, like other school districts in North Carolina and nationally, is facing a bus driver shortage. The challenge of dealing with dozens of students while also receiving low pay, especially compared to other jobs that also require a commercial driver’s license, make it difficult to recruit and keep school bus drivers.

Wake school officials have said a full-time starting school bus driver makes $13.11 an hour, for $17,043 annually, compared to a full-time GoTriangle bus driver who starts at $15 an hour and makes $31,250 annually.

Wake has increased marking efforts in the past few years to recruit more drivers.

Wake had 881 drivers in the 2013-14 school year, but that figure has steadily declined, forcing the district to make changes to deal with having fewer buses on the road. Routes have been redrawn, students have to walk further to reach a bus stop and the buses themselves are more crowded.

Wake ended last school year with 720 full-time bus drivers. The number is now down to 713 drivers for the 765 daily bus routes.

David Neter, Wake’s chief operating officer, told the school board that there are 25 driver vacancies in the five western Wake transportation districts.

Wake has 72 substitute drivers who are primarily supposed to fill in when a driver is absent. But more are being asked to drive regular routes.

The district has also put bus operations team leaders behind the wheel instead of having them in the office supervising the drivers.

The lack of drivers is part of the reason that Wake structures school start times so that the individual buses can make multiple runs in the morning and afternoon. Wake has high schools on the first run at 7:25 a.m. and elementary schools on the last at 9:15 a.m..

The bell schedules have drawn complaints from parents who say high schools should start later so that teens get more sleep and that elementary schools should begin earlier to make it easier to arrange childcare.

School board member Chris Heagarty told his colleagues that they’ll need to consider the driver shortage as they work on next year’s budget.

“Is it better for more kids to ride the bus versus more kids in carpool lanes versus the feasibility of older kids taking advantage of mass transportation options,” Heagarty said at this week’s finance committee meeting. “I’m just really trying to see what’s going to be better for the district in terms of saving money, in terms of liability.”

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