As parents discussed concerns about overcrowded schools during a recent Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) meeting, an ancillary problem in the western district was highlighted: the sometimes unreliable schedules of local school buses. Several parents described problems with frequent substitute drivers who were unfamiliar with the bus routes, and with bus drivers running two routes in one bus so students had to ride for longer times.
Even on regular days, said others, the schedule might shift unpredictably, causing students to be late for or miss after-school activities or lessons. “Buses can be early or late by as much as ten minutes,” said one, “and a lot of parents are uncomfortable with that window so they drive their kids to school instead.” In an area with as many rush hour traffic snarls as Crozet, extra parents on the road only exacerbates those problems.
Another CCAC attendee noted that local limitations on available after-care for elementary students have led to even more afternoon drivers. Both Brownsville and Crozet Schools imposed lottery systems this year for access to after-care services, and some families were unlucky enough to have one child get a spot and another not get one.
All agreed on the need for a more reliable school bus system, but the school division is currently laboring under a shortage of drivers, says Jim Foley, director of transportation for Albemarle County Public Schools. “We usually have about 160 bus drivers [county-wide], plus another 20 van drivers and also substitutes, but we’re down 10 drivers right now,” said Foley.
To deal with the shortage, division staff must redistribute students into the available capacity of other buses in the system. “If we are short or a driver is out, we’ll put some of those kids on another driver’s route,” he said. “That happens frequently, and it creates longer ride times for kids and a lot of the time we get into school late because of that.” The reshuffling also affects Foley’s office staff, who are often pressed into service if there are not enough substitute drivers available.
“My staff already have 40-hour-per-week jobs that don’t include bus driving, but when we’re short they have to drive,” said Foley. “I myself drove two days last week.” Even though the staff and substitutes are licensed and experienced drivers, it’s not an ideal solution. “For the students it’s kind of like having a substitute teacher,” he said. “The kids are not as well behaved. It’s better for everyone to have a consistent driver.”
Foley says the county is working along several dimensions to fill the driver gap. A $2-per-hour wage increase (resulting in a $15.30 starting hourly rate) last year made driver jobs more competitive, and new rules require drivers to work only six hours per day to be included in the Virginia retirement system. “You also receive full-time health care benefits for a part-time job,” he said. “It’s a great job for retirees and others who just want part-time work.”
Albemarle county is also lobbying to advance legislation in the Virginia General Assembly that would deem bus driving a “critical shortage position,” which means that people who have retired from bus driving could come back and drive (or substitute) eight hours a day and still collect their pension. “We’re working with [Delegate] Rob Bell and [State Senator] Creigh Deeds and hope to get that passed this coming year.”
Foley’s department successfully lobbied for changes in bus stop-arm legislation last year. They recently spearheaded a state-wide survey on driver shortages—revealing that 80% of school districts are short, and every district with over 200 buses is short—to help support this year’s bill. “I’m optimistic, but you never know,” he said.
While some drivers stay in the job for years, there’s a fair amount of turnover in the positions as well. “We have six people in training right now and that should help,” said Foley. “However, we lose people on Family Medical Leave fairly often, and we lose some to higher-paying 40-hour-per-week jobs as well. After we increased the wage and eligibility, we did have some folks come back. We’ll just keep plugging away at it.”
Bus drivers go through student management training to keep behavior on their buses under control. “The secret is to get to know students on a personal level in the first couple of months,” said Foley. “It requires patience and you pick your battles, but there’s a lot of support from [county] staff and the administrators at the schools. Eventually, the kids kind of police themselves, and it becomes almost easy.”
Foley says that though he has an engineering/manufacturing background and never thought he’d be doing this, he loves his job and thinks school bus driving can be a very rewarding occupation. “You can see the same student every day for 14 years,” he said. “That’s more contact than any other county school employee, and it’s great to watch the kids grow up.”