Low pay, students’ behavior blamed for school bus driver shortage

DOVER — The persistent school bus driver shortage throughout the state is so well-known it’s fodder for wisecracks.

At a Smyrna School District back-to-school breakfast attended by Gov. John Carney on Wednesday, the district’s Child Nutrition supervisor Roger Holt pretended to introduce a new drive-your-students-to-work initiative when he addressed gathered staff.

“I wanted to introduce a new program called the ride share program for transportation,” he joked. “I’m going to need all of you to stop by before work on Monday, pick up a bus and drive in all the kids on your way to school.”

As students in the state head back to school, contractors (who supply about 2/3 of the state’s needs) and school district transportation departments are steeling themselves for another challenging year of chronic short-staffing.

Well aware of the issues, the state’s Department of Education (DOE) claims it’s not limited to Delaware, or to strictly school bus drivers.

North Dover Elementary School students head to school busses. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“We’re aware of the shortages and staffing concerns,” said DOE spokeswoman Susan Keene Haberstroh. “The school bus driver shortage is being experienced in every district or county in every state. The driver shortage is also being experienced by all transportation industries, not just the school bus industry. The DOE provides technical assistance to districts and contractors on strategies to make their routes more efficient, working to find new ways to find drivers and working to increasing the number of incoming school bus drivers to fulfill the requirements of DMV and DOE.”

The reasons for the shortage most often cited is what one would expect: low pay and sub-standard working conditions. Terry Fenwick has been driving a school bus for the past 12 years — he’s worked for Matthew Smith Bus Services, Providence Creek Academy and Capital School District.

“There’s been a bus driver shortage for as long as I’ve been driving,” he said. “It seems like it’s gotten worse though over the past five or six years. The main thing is the pay, but it’s also some of the students’ behavior. We have to deal with a lot of unruly and disrespectful students on the bus that do things that make for unsafe condition. Getting them properly disciplined can be difficult because bus drivers really don’t have any authority.”
Drivers’ compensation

Contractors and districts handle compensation differently, but drivers and supervisors agree that the pay works out to roughly $55 to $65 per day, depending on amount of miles traveled. Being a part-time job, an average day’s work is four hours. Mr. Fenwick — a Vietnam veteran and retiree — said that many of the bus drivers he knows are retired or collecting social security, but for people trying to make a living on the wages, it’s next to impossible.

“If someone is doing it to make a living, it’s usually their second job anyway,” said Mr. Fenwick. “But if they suddenly get a job offer somewhere else with benefits — they’re gone.”

Being that it’s hard to find qualified applicants interested in the work in the first place, it’s even harder to replace someone who quits suddenly or calls off for some reason.

“There is a lot of turnover,” said Mr. Fenwick. “It can happen fast too. Sometimes the transportation supervisor himself has to hop in a bus and drive because he can’t find anyone to fill an open spot.”

Capital School District’s transportation supervisor Bruce Ashby said that although the district’s routes are covered going into this school year, that can change quickly.

“Someone calls out for even something as simple as car trouble, we’ll have to scramble,” he said. “The domino effect that comes from school buses running late is so unforgiving — the consequences are endless. If affects the school, the teachers, the parents and the students and everything else all of them have going on that day.”

Availability of more attractive jobs with less expense and hassle, often decreases the pool of applicants, Mr. Ashby added.

“It’s a part-time job, but you have to come in twice a day,” he said. “That’s twice the gas and wear and tear on your car that you aren’t compensated for. Dump truck drivers or trash truck drivers can make $20 to $30 per hour and you can take those jobs with the same license.”

Capital School District’s fleet includes 35 buses, but only runs 1/3 of the routes, the rest are satisfied by 8 bus service contractors. As concerning as the shortage of bus drivers, is the lack of investment by contractors themselves, Mr. Ashby said.

“We have contractors going out of business — mostly because the driver situation is bad and they don’t get enough compensation for maintenance,” he added. “Because of the circumstances, we don’t see any new contractors trying to get into the business this year. Most of our existing contractors have serviced these communities for generations, but they need to be able to pay drivers fair wages, maintain their buses and pay insurance without having to dig in their own pockets to stay afloat.”

Contractors’ allowances

The DOE says the state provides allowances to school bus contractors and school districts based on a formula approved by the legislature. The formula is supposed to provide allowances for fixed costs, driver, administration, maintenance, insurance, fuel and bus attendant. The formula is adjusted if the route is over 30 miles or over 3.5 hours in time. The formula also provides a school bus capital allowance to the school bus contractor for the first 7 years.

The contractors receive additional allowances based on additional miles the buses travel. In general, the state provides 90 percent of funding for the transportation programs with districts picking up the remaining 10 percent.

Ryan Moore, president of Milford-based D & N Bus Service, said his impression is that the state would be content to just have him “break even and have that be the end of it.” Mr. Moore runs 19 school bus routes in Milford and 6 in Lake Forest with a total of 31 buses.

He said the original allowance formula was written back in 1977, hasn’t seen much change since and is “sorely outdated.”

“Things have changed a lot since 1977,” he said. “We didn’t have turbochargers back then. We do now, and every time one goes down, it costs thousands of dollars to fix. None of the allowances are keeping in line with the times — even with the fuel charges. They are very quick to adjust fuel reimbursement when gas prices drop, but when they climb back up, they’re slow.”

For drivers, Mr. Moore said he’s perpetually in need of one or two more reliable people. He finds it difficult to hire new ones because wages haven’t kept in line with costs of living.

According to the DOE the per hour allowance for drivers was increased by ten cents in FY 2013 to $13.95 and then brought up to $14.73 for FY 2018.
Even with increases, Mr. Ashby says the state is “way behind.”

“They’ve given two minimal increases over the past few years, but they’ve been behind for so long that it’s just not enough to bring the contractors up where they need to be,” he said.

Working conditions

Being an former Marine, Mr. Fenwick says he can handle the pressure of misbehaving students, but some drivers rapidly approach the point where it’s not worth it for them.

“I had one girl a few years ago spit a mouthful of sunflower seeds in my face,” he said. “You can’t react to situations like that at all because you’ll be out of your job immediately. Each bus has a camera for the safety of students and drivers, but kids get in your face and disrespect you all the time. If drivers had a bit more authority, things might be better, but we have to go through a write-up system and the school takes a long time to take disciplinary action — if at all.”

Mr. Moore said his drivers complain on a daily basis about disciplinary issues.

“We have to constantly be on top of the school district about this, but a lot of the time it seems like it’s easier to just not deal with it rather than upset parents — even with evidence we have on cameras,” he said. “If you think a cell phone while you’re driving is a distraction, try a bus-load of misbehaving kids.”

Getting a new driver trained and licensed has also recently become a headache, added Mr. Moore.

“We always have a vacancy, I can always use one or two more reliable drivers — it’s to the point where I’m out driving every day myself,” he said. “The training and licensing process used to only take about a month, but lately, when I have someone call in to set up a DMV appointment for their commercial drivers license test, the waiting period is up to two or three months. If I need someone right now, that’s a problem.”

What’s being done?

When it comes to addressing increased funding, Mr. Ashby says that his impression from the state is that it’s a “work in progress.”

The DOE claims to review their funding mechanisms annually.

“The State Budget Appropriations Bill, HB275, states that: ‘The Public School Transportation Committee, consisting of representatives from the Department of Education, the Controller General’s Office, the Office of Management and Budget and representatives for bus contractors and school district transportation supervisors shall make recommendations to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the Controller General for revisions to components of the transportation formula no later than April 1 of each fiscal year,” said Ms. Haberstroh. “The committee will begin work this fall to submit their recommendation to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the Controller General as required.”

Mr. Moore has little hope for this review process.

“They’ve had working groups for decades where they come together and talk about changes in the formula and every single time, the group’s answer is that we’re underfunded,” he said. “The changes don’t follow though.”

Exactly two years ago, this paper wrote an article, “Back to school, Bus contractors: More funding needed,” outlining the same basic issues. A working group had just completed their analysis in 2015 on the state’s school bus industry and the verdict in their report read:

“As operating costs have escalated over the years, the funding for contractors’ services has not kept pace — not even close.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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