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Breaking down the Wilson County school bus driver shortage

Xavier Smith • Sep 19, 2017 at 5:10 PM

The Wilson County school board began serious discussions on possible solutions to transportation issues that plague the district during a special called board meeting Monday.

“There’s never enough school bus drivers, and that’s just the long and short of it. All of the dilemmas that our parents are facing, all the dilemmas that I face and my staff face are because of the lack of school bus drivers. They are the backbone of my end of the business and for you all, too,” said Jerry Partlow, Wilson County Schools transportation director. “I wish there was one silver bullet that I could say, ‘You shoot this and all your problems go away.’ That’s not going to happen. There are a lot of things we need to do.”

 

“Maybe we can find a solution that will be beneficial to most people. Everybody is not going to be happy with what we talk about tonight, probably, and I don’t know that we’ll reach a solution tonight. Hopefully, we can,” Wilson County school board chairman Larry Tomlinson said.

By the Numbers

30 – Partlow said the district needs 30 additional drivers to cover routes and have a solid number of backup drivers in case of absences.

439 – The district has 439 bus route assignments each day, which include regular morning and afternoon routes, special needs morning and afternoon routes and midday routes.

6  – Partlow said the district has six teachers who currently also drive school buses.

10,000 – Wilson County has about 10,000 students or about 55 percent of the student population who use the school buses, according to Partlow.

2 –Tomlinson said the district has seriously discussed the school bus driver shortage for two years.

$5 – The school board also approved a $5 per hour increase in June for bus drivers for field trips and athletic events to make their payment closer to their regular pay, which averages $16 per hour.

$708,000 – Mickey Hall, Wilson County deputy director of schools, said it would take about $708,000 to provide a $2 raise for bus drivers, including benefits.

Background

Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright said the district has discussed the bus driver shortage for two years and has implemented potential solutions, some of which yielded marginal, if any, results.

Wright said the district granted bus drivers access to the county health clinic, which didn’t help the situation. She said other actions have included increased pay and additional hours.

 

Attracting drivers

Wright and Partlow said the fact a commercial driver’s license is required to drive a school bus creates a problem as potential drivers also have the ability to find other employment.

“People have choices they can make and, unfortunately, driving a school bus is not at the top of the list,” Wright said.

Hall highlighted some changes the district made earlier this year to entice drivers such as paid training at $8.50 per hour. However, he said on some occasions, drivers work and quit after the first day after realizing the scope of the work and the atmosphere on buses.

He also said background checks, drug screens and other Tennessee Department of Transportation requirements deter potential drivers.

Partlow said he wants to attract retired drivers, but under Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System rules, retirees can only work 120 days – 60 less days than a school year – or risk losing benefits.

Jennifer Johnson, Wilson County Schools spokesperson, said the district has also made minor changes, including offering morning and afternoon only shifts for new drivers.

 Laws and regulations

Wright said the district has to adhere to several laws and regulations that govern bus transportation, which also create challenges.

“Many parents have offered to us that we have laws that we need to follow. The operative word in many of these is ‘may,’ not ‘shall,’ but ‘may.’ That’s had to be pointed out,” Wright said.

Wright said many parents have pointed out law that states the district could approve temporary certificates for drivers, however, Wright said since fatal bus accidents and Knox and Hamilton counties, the regulations have changed.

Wright and Partlow both noted since the minimum age requirement for school bus drivers went from 21 to 25, it’s harder to attract younger drivers.

Partlow also highlighted physical requirements for bus drivers, which, in some cases, could cost thousands of dollars in medical expenses before a driver gets behind the wheel of a school bus.

Salary and benefits

Hall said a district school bus driver’s salary averages $16 an hour.

Board member Wayne McNeese said he would support a flat daily pay rate for district bus drivers.

“I’m ready to propose a flat fee a day – $120, $150 a day or whatever it may be, so they can get those 35 hours that they have,” said McNeese, who said the plan would not affect drivers who work more than 40 hours.

“We have to make it an attractive position. I was an educator for 45 years. Bottom line is you pay for what you get,” said board member Larry Joe Inman, who said the district should look to increase bus driver salaries and benefits.

 

Hall said it would take about $708,000 to provide a $2 raise to district bus drivers, which was included in the district’s needs assessment list presented to the Wilson County Commission.

Hall said the district did not include the pay raise in the district’s budget because all pay increases that require new funds are placed on the needs assessment list for the commission.

Student and parent behavior

“Money is always going to be there. The second most important thing is having to deal with the students and the lack of discipline on the buses,” Partlow said. “Parents play games with us constantly. They’ll want to jump bus stops, have [students] dropped off at babysitters or businesses. We’re not a taxi service. They present a lot of dilemmas for us and they get upset when we tell them no.”

Board members Johnie Payton and McNeese discussed discipline on school buses during Monday’s meeting.

“If your kid cannot sit on that bus and pay attention and listen just like they do in that classroom, then you don’t need to be riding that bus,” Payton said.

“We’ve got to support these drivers when they have an issue and make sure that these kids are going to behave or they’re going to walk,” said McNeese, who was adamant that district-level administrators received information about discipline issues on buses.

“There’s not hardly a day I don’t discuss some issue on a school bus with a driver. They don’t think enough is being done,” Partlow said. “I’ve had to go to principals and say, ‘Please rethink this.’ If you’re too lenient on a kid, then it just perpetuates the problem. We have to be firmer.”

“I think discipline on the bus should be the same as discipline in the school,” board member Bill Robinson said.

“Parents go and talk to the principal and they fight what that bus driver has to say, or they send a certified letter saying their child could never do those things. It’s implausible. No way. It’s the bus driver’s fault,” board member Tom Sottek said. “I’ve known these same parents get onto the bus and talk to these bus drivers. It’s ridiculous. Parents need to understand these bus drivers are trying to do the best they can with the situation they’re given.”

Notification for parents

“I know a lot of the parents have accused us of waiting until the last minute. That is not true. We try to notify them and give them as much notice as possible,” Partlow said. “We try to notify the schools as soon as possible when we figure out what’s going on. With parents, we try to let them know as soon as possible. If we know the night before, we’ll send out a notice the night before.”

Stagger start times

McNeese said the district should look to temporarily stagger start times in hopes that drivers could do double and triple routes.

“Triple start times – we could do that, but I think there will be a lot of questions that need to be addressed about athletic teams and getting high schools out too late to make trips,” Partlow said.

Support for bus drivers

“Something that’s been lost in this conversation is the stress and the concern that our bus drivers are carrying every day when they’re driving that bus with those children sitting behind them,” Wright said. “We’ve got to make sure we support the bus drivers we have right now. We have to figure out what we can do.”

The board will brainstorm potential solutions and present them during the Sept. 28 regular board meeting.

 

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