Last week, the first week of the 2022-2023 school year, saw the Bulloch County Schools juggling with a lingering shortage of school bus drivers, a perennial problem in school districts across the nation made much worse here by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A local school board-approved raise has boosted the starting pay of drivers by more than 12% this year alone, recruiting efforts are underway, and some people with other roles in the schools are now allowed to drive buses as a second job.
But as of Friday, the Bulloch County district, with 93 bus routes serving 15 schools, had vacancies for 27 drivers, plus one bus mechanic and one assistant director of transportation, reported Hayley Greene, the Bulloch County Schools public relations director.
“Bus driver shortages are a nationwide trend,” she wrote when asked about the situation as the school year began. “We began experiencing it here in Bulloch County about five years ago. The global COVID pandemic exacerbated the issue.”
Over the last five years, the school district’s workforce has been down by five to 30 drivers at any time because of “any myriad of employment situations like training, resignations, retirements, or temporary leave due to illness or long-term medical leave,” Greene said.
After conferring with BCS Transportation Director Janet Tanner in response to follow-up questions Monday, Greene said that before COVID, staffing had fallen short by only five to 10 drivers a year “as a normal constant,” but that the vacancies were easily filled.
Before COVID-19, the school system maintained 113 routes, so lengthening and altering routes for a reduction by 20 routes overall has been part of the adaptive response. But to be officially fully staffed, the district’s transportation department would need 120 drivers, Greene stated Monday, relaying answers from Tanner. They reported that the school system currently has 86 “full-time” drivers and seven part-time drivers, with no substitute drivers available.
To make up the difference, “drivers are driving double and triple routes,” Tanner said. “This extends the times of our routes. Elementary routes now end by 3:30 and middle and high school routes end by 5 p.m.”
But the Bulloch County Schools do not, at this point, take one step that many other school systems do to limit ridership, Greene noted.
“Our school district does not currently set any limitations on the distance children have to live from a school before they can be eligible to receive transportation services,” she wrote.
Together, the drivers travel more than 1.3 million miles a year, transporting upwards of 5,500 children to and from school each day.
Raises for drivers
Local raises have boosted the bus driver starting wage now to $17.68 an hour. The starting wage was first increased to $15 four years ago. Then in the Bulloch County Board of Education’s fiscal year 2023 budget, in effect since July 1, drivers were included in a $2 per hour raise recommended by local administrators after the state government provided a raise for teachers but as usual did not fund raises for non-certificated school employees.
Of course, most school bus drivers, as such, do not work a full 40-hour week. For most of those driving regular routes, the job traditionally takes about five hours each school day, two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half in the afternoon, and so the standard here is a 25-hour week.
But school bus drivers often make additional hours driving for field trips and athletics. Drivers who take on those added responsibilities can attain a 40-hour paid work week during the school year, as can some individuals with other part-day jobs in the school system.
Greene provided a recruiting flyer touting Bulloch County Schools’ compensation, benefits and free training for bus drivers. First used for the district’s recruitment fair for all types of jobs last February, the flyer was later updated to reflect the raise and has appeared in newspaper ads and via direct mail as an insert among coupons.
Tanner said she believes some of the school district’s efforts are helping, particularly the opening up of the training program to allow coaches, teachers, school food service employees and custodians to be trained as drivers. It’s a voluntary provision that lets these school employees add working as a paid driver to their duties, if their current job schedules allow.
“It's a win-win, because it helps provide transportation to children and allows the employees to earn additional salary,” Tanner said. “They drive at times when they already have open time, such as open planning periods at the beginning or end of the school day, or after a work shift has ended.”
Lots of holidays
Of course, the district is still seeking to recruit other people who don’t already work for the schools. The recruitment flyer touts the fact that “You are off when the kids are off during holidays and summers” as a potential draw. Working only a partial day and receiving year-round benefits from a part-year job has been an attraction for many drivers in the past.
School bus drivers participate in a retirement plan and employer-hosted medical, dental, vision and life insurance coverage. They also get paid vacations, sick leave and personal leave, and although the work year consists of 180 days, the salary earned then is paid out over 12 months.
For older and medically vulnerable people, those attractions faded during the pandemic for obvious reasons. Retirees from other lines of work remain one of several key societal groups from whom bus drivers are recruited.
“Many of our drivers are either retirees, farmers, small business owners or stay-at-home parents,” Greene said.
Ten people are currently going through the training process to begin as Bulloch County school bus drivers some time this fall.
Becoming a driver
A commercial driver’s license and specialized training is required for school bus drivers. The school system provides a free, three-day CDL preparation class for applicants who meet qualifications by first providing a seven-year driving record from the Georgia Department of Driver Services (for which applicants pay their own $8 fee).
Drivers who complete the free CDL prep class then pay their own fee for the test and basic CDL permit, reportedly $55.
But for applicants who pass and obtain a CDL or already have one, the school system provides the free, five-day, 35-hour school bus driver course, and final 24 hours training that includes 12 hours of driving, free or charge. For those qualifying to be hired, the district also pays for the required criminal background check, drug and alcohol testing, medical physical and final, third-party licensing test.
To start the process, individuals can apply only throughout the year for bus driver positions at www.bullochschools.org/jobs.