NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - School bus issues often come up at the beginning of the school year, as school districts sort out how many kids are riding the bus, and what stops need to be added or dropped. But months into this school year, New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) has still been struggling to get kids to school on time on some of its bus routes.
The delays have caused stress for parents, students, school administrators and bus drivers alike.
NHCS administrators say a severe bus driver shortage is causing the problem. Unless something changes, they don’t think they will be able to resolve the bus delays completely until next semester, and possibly longer.
Rebecca Carter said she’s exasperated with the persistently late buses for her elementary and middle school children, and has gone before the school board to share her concerns.
“[It’s] just really frustrating as a parent, as a working parent, to have to worry about the safety of your child, with not getting on the school bus. I can count on my hand the amount of times that the school bus has been on time,” Carter said.
The morning we met with her, Carter said the bus for her 7-year-old son was scheduled to arrive at 7:06 a.m. Instead, it came at 7:18 a.m. She says not knowing when the bus will arrive, and not wanting to leave her young son unattended at the bus stop, makes it difficult for her to get ready for work and get to her job on time at 8 a.m.
Carter says her daughter’s bus is supposed to arrive at 7:30 a.m. It has also been late many times, prompting Carter to drive her 12-year-old to Trask Middle School so she would make it to class in time for first period at 8:20 a.m., in turn causing Carter to be late for work, forcing her to burn vacation time.
New Hanover County transportation administrators say the shortage of bus drivers has been a problem for years but is especially dire this year.
They have 130 regular drivers to run 136 buses and say they ideally need 144-146. The extra 16 drivers would enable them to fill the six vacancies and have additional drivers on had to cover the 9 percent of regular drivers who call out of work on a typical school day.
“We don’t know a lot of times [that a driver is going to be out] until that morning at 5:30. And at 5:30 in the morning, all the coordinators are trying to redo the routes to see how we can get the kids to school as quickly as we possibly can,” said NHCS Transportation Director Ken Nance of the anxiety-provoking situation for all involved.
“Our biggest concern every day is the safety of the students, particularly when they’re standing at the bus stop waiting for the bus to come and when it’s late. Obviously, they’re there for an extended period of time,” Nance added.
Because it is short at least six drivers every single day, NHCS has four buses that are consistently late in the mornings and six buses that are consistently late in the afternoon. Nance says these buses are typically 15-45 minutes late each day.
The problems are most severe for middle school students, because the drivers for their buses take a bus full of elementary-aged students to school first. If drivers get behind on the elementary route, there’s a domino effect for the middle school students waiting for a ride.
The late buses are concentrated in the Northern Division, the largest area of the county geographically. The area also has the greatest population of students, including Carter’s children in a neighborhood off Gordon Road.
Katie Maguire lives nearby in North Chase, and has experienced similar problems with three of her children who ride the bus. The bus delays for her middle schooler were significant enough that her daughter now walks to Trask Middle School to avoid being late.
“You see the kids waiting for that bus after school has already started,” Maguire said.
Maguire’s two younger children attend Castle Hayne Elementary nearly five miles away, so walking is not a viable option. The number of kids needing to ride that particular bus has grown, in part because of the ongoing residential development in northern New Hanover County.
“They had to add more stops to the route because there’s not enough drivers. So my kids have had the same bus stop since my daughter was in kindergarten eight years ago. They always got home at 3:00 which is 35 minutes after school gets out. This year, they’re getting home at 3:25, an hour after school gets out. That’s a long day. They are in elementary school,” Maguire said.
The bus is so full, Maguire said the school sent a note home saying that kids could not have friends ride home with them on the bus this year, because there isn’t room. Nance says in all, the county has 14 school buses running at capacity.
Keeping the buses relatively full has reduced the overall need for drivers. Over the last several years, improving efficiency by putting more kids on each bus has allowed the schools to take 53 buses out of the rotation, enabling NHCS to operate with 53 fewer drivers.
NHCS administrators say that helped mask the bus driver shortage for years. But now, with buses running at near-maximum efficiency, administrators say the issues they are experiencing cannot be fixed without more drivers.
School Board Member Judy Justice would like to address this issue by giving drivers a raise.
“There are ways to deal with this problem…. The most immediate solution and one that they keep skirting around is that we need to pay, we need to raise the pay. Right now we are using what the state sends us and no more. We can add to the pay with a supplement just like we do a teachers and other administrative personnel,” Justice said.
This year, she’d like to dip into NHCS $9 million fund balance to cover a $2/hour pay raise for bus drivers. She thinks that could be accomplished for all drivers for under $1 million.
Currently, the average NHCS bus driver makes $15.41 an hour. The starting pay for a new driver is $13.41, a rate that is expected to increase to $14.00 an hour when the state legislature passes its budget.
That rate is about the same or even slightly higher than what similarly sized districts are paying school bus drivers in other parts of the state. Those districts are also struggling with driver shortages.
Onslow County Schools, for example is still trying to fill 35 open bus driver positions, while Buncombe County schools has ten open bus driver jobs.
98 percent of NHCS drivers are full-time with benefits, which is significantly better than average compared to full-time bus driver rates in other parts of North Carolina.
“To me, it’s an emergency,” Justice said of the need to raise pay to recruit more drivers. "We can’t wait until next year. Every day that a child, a small child, is standing out on that corner for 45 minutes - now it’s getting darker every day. Every day that a parent is waiting for an hour or two for their child or a child is sitting on the bus or sitting in the school waiting for a bus to come that’s just wasted time and dangerous time if it’s little kids standing on the road.”
Justice wanted her proposed pay raise put on the School Board’s agenda for their Nov. 5 meeting. Instead, Dr. Tim Markley is expected to address the issue in his Superintendent’s report to the board.
While NHCS administrators don’t think an increase in pay would hurt, they’re not convinced it would solve the bus driver shortage problem either. They say the booming economy has taken a lot of would-be bus drivers out of the applicant pool, and when the schools find interested applicants, it takes about six weeks to get them trained and licensed to drive a bus.
To address the urgent shortage, NHCS began requiring newly hired Teacher’s Assistants to get their Commercial Driver’s Licenses last spring. TA’s now drive either a morning route or an afternoon bus route in addition to teaching.
The requirement is slowly helping school administrators fill bus driver vacancies, but it has also deterred some people from applying for the TA jobs who do not want to drive a bus.