Wake County cuts school bus routes due to driver shortage


Wake County school buses will become more crowded this fall due to an ongoing driver shortage, resulting in fewer buses on the road and longer commute times for students.

Wake school administrators said Tuesday that when schools with the traditional calendar reopen Aug. 29 there will be 52 bus routes less than last academic year. A shortage of drivers means school transport will not run on some routes on some days.

Last school year, it was not uncommon for schools to tell families that they had to provide their own transportation if there was no driver that day.

“Some buses may not run at all on a given day if too many drivers are absent,” the school district said in an email Tuesday to families of school bus riders. “Schools and parents will be notified as soon as possible if this happens.”

A Wake County school bus driver backs into a parking lot on Capital Blvd. in Raleigh after completing the morning route on Friday, October 29, 2021 Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Lack of driver

There is a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers. This forced the remaining bus drivers to choose more routes.

Last October, some Wake bus drivers called in sick as a sign of protest against working conditions. The disease has led to long lines for buses at many schools as parents take their children to and from classes.

The county made changes such as offering bonuses and raising the starting pay for drivers to $17.20 an hour. But even with the higher pay, Wake said 106 drivers had quit in the past year as of Aug. 2.

“What we do know is that our bus drivers are truly amazing people,” said school board chairwoman Lindsay Mahaffey. “They care about our students. We also know that it is very hard work.”

Bob Snidemiller, the county’s senior director of transportation, cited a tight job market. He said school districts such as Johnston County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg offer higher starting salaries, although Wake has narrowed the gap in starting salaries.

The state finances the basic salary of bus drivers. School districts often supplement the payment with local funds.

Out of 32 applicants, only a few new drivers will join the district’s July training class.

In the 2014-15 school year, Wake had 928 bus routes. In autumn, it is planned to reduce 584 routes in the district. Wake has 615 bus drivers, 55 of whom are permanent substitutes who fill in when a driver is away.

This year’s reduction of 52 routes comes after 71 routes were cut last school year.

“We knew it was going to be a tough presentation,” Mahaffey said after Snidemiller addressed the board. “There is no positive in this.”

Longer bus journeys

Snidemiller said the situation will be even more challenging this fall due to the need to serve four new schools and the return of students who attended the Virtual Academy during the pandemic.

Fewer routes mean Wake is increasing bus travel times, so travel times will be “a little longer.” More buses will be loaded.

More overcrowded buses will mean better safety measures are needed, Snidemiller said.

The driver shortage also means fewer “disciplinary” runs, where students who don’t get along are separated on separate buses, Snidemiller said.

Wake will increase the number of carpools where drivers pick up a group of students to take them to school before returning to bring a second group to campus.

The Wake message alerted families that some students would need to arrive 40 minutes before the start of the school day. In the afternoon, some students may have to wait at school for their bus to make its first flight before it can return to pick up passengers for the second flight.

Shortage of specialist drivers

Special students will also feel the pain this fall.

Wake contracts with private providers to transport students with special needs who cannot ride a regular yellow school bus.

Private vendors have also had difficulty finding drivers, leaving 200 to 250 students unserved last school year.

This fall, providers are expected to launch 20 more routes to serve the 4,000 students expected to receive contracted transportation. Their runs will be longer.

But Snidemiller said the providers are 90 drivers short of scheduled routes after the two companies asked to terminate the contract. This shortfall will affect about 800 students.

As a result, students with special needs will also face “slightly longer journeys” and the risk of open routes where there is no driver on some days.

Snidemiller said the stipend will be provided if a parent wants to drive their child to school if a contracted transportation route is not found.

“We know we’re going to have open routes,” Snidemiller said.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school officials and the community understand the important role of education in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also works on education issues statewide.

Wake County cuts school bus routes due to driver shortage

Source link Wake County cuts school bus routes due to driver shortage