Delaware school bus drivers needed statewide

Capital District School bus driver Terry Fenwick greets students from East Dover Elementary School as they board their school bus on the first day of school last week. “We always need drivers, no matter what,” said Tyler Bryan, who handles student transportation for the Delaware Department of Education. (Delaware State News photos/Marc Clery)

DOVER — They’re a nearly inescapable sight on the state’s roadways for most of the year — the big yellow buses taking kids to and from school (and sometimes making you late for work). But many people are unaware just how much the state struggles to find people to drive those buses.

“We always need drivers, no matter what,” said Tyler Bryan, who handles student transportation for the Delaware Department of Education.

According to Mr. Bryan, the state had about 1,690 routes for its 19 school districts last year. Districts were responsible for 513 of those routes — an issue because it is cheaper and easier for districts to use contractors rather than being responsible for buying and maintaining buses.

One of the obstacles is pay, but that isn’t the only problem. The nature of the job itself is a turnoff for some.

“It’s hard to make a living if you drive two and a half, three hours in the morning, two and a half, three hours in the afternoon, and then you have the whole middle of your day where you can’t really do anything because you’re on call,” said Harold Walters, transportation supervisor for the Indian River School District.

Additionally, some drivers find dealing with unruly students to be too much of a hassle.

Applicants must go through a rigorous process that involves obtaining a Commercial Driver’s License, taking a course and passing a road test. Most of those requirements come from Washington, meaning Delaware has no choice but to enforce them. And starting in February, another federal mandate on necessary training goes into effect.

“We are transporting the most precious cargo,” Mr. Bryan said.

Many drivers, he said, are either retirees looking to stay busy and make a bit of money or stay-at-home parents looking to work while their children are in school but still be there after classes end for the day.

It’s not an especially lucrative business for contractors, either.

Capital School District bus driver Terry Fenwick greets East Dover Elementary School pupils last week. According to Capital’s transportation supervisor, Bruce Ashby, the Dover-area district has 93 routes. It operates 33 of them.

“If someone were to be in the contracting business, basically, you’re better off trying to pass it down to a family member” than trying to sell it, said Bobby McClements, the owner of Dover-based McClements Buses LLC.

Districts can generally offer better pay and benefits than contractors can, said Mr. McClements, who took over the business from his grandparents 12 years ago.

McClements Buses, which owns six buses, has contracts with the Capital, Caesar Rodney and Polytech school districts. The company is currently looking to hire two drivers.

According to Capital’s transportation supervisor, Bruce Ashby, the Dover-area district has 93 routes. It operates 33 of them, up from eight just five years ago.

Capital owns about 45 buses and employs approximately the same number of people in transportation, Mr. Ashby said.

While he described the issue as not hitting Capital as hard as other districts, it’s still very real. Several contractors have retired or gone out of business, and some people apply with plans to gain experience they can use to get a full-time job driving a truck.

Mr. Ashby is not sure why Capital has been more fortunate than some districts, but he certainly isn’t complaining.

“We’ve managed to get it done,” he said.

As Mr. Bryan put it, every district is at the breaking point, but some have been there longer.

Indian River has about 170 routes, around 95 percent of which are operated by the 40 contractors the district works with, Mr. Walters said. It employs two full-time drivers, two full-time aides and several part-timers who can handle any one of several duties.

“We use some people in dual capacity where they drive in the morning and the afternoon and custodian part of the midday,” Mr. Walters said.

The way the state compensates bus companies is based off a complicated formula created in 1977 that, to the chagrin of contractors, went years without updates.

The state phased in the first change last year and made another this year, part of a four-step process toward “reworking the formula to bring it up to speed,” Mr. Bryan said.

A group of Department of Education officials, contractors and others is currently meeting to craft recommendations to adjust the formula. While the formula is not public, Mr. Bryan said it includes allowances for drivers, maintenance costs, mileage rates and insurance.

The budget for the current fiscal year notes the allowance for gasoline, for instance, “shall be based on the state contract bid price for fuel plus $0.07 per gallon for districts and plus $0.31 per gallon for contractors.”

The formula was adjusted to keep up with inflation about a decade ago, Mr. Bryan said, but then left alone again.

He cautioned against believing the update will solve all the issues, however.

“Other states who’ve thrown money at the problem have not seen that great of a result,” he said.

Districts will have to think creatively to find ways to attract qualified drivers and contractors, Mr. Bryan said. But even in areas where the problem is not as acute, there is only so much that can be done.

“It’s like being a schoolteacher. You kind of have a love for wanting to do it,” Mr. Walters said.

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