NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - As the New Hanover County school board works to find more effective ways to recruit bus drivers, we are learning more about how the dire bus driver shortage is impacting students. A parent contacted WECT to say his 6th-grade son, who has been a straight-A student since kindergarten, was at one point failing his first-period math class because he has missed so much instruction due to a chronically late bus.
Cameron Brown has since brought his grade up to a C, but feels frustrated that his grade is suffering, at least in part because his bus cannot get him to school on time.
“We’re learning this new stuff because we’re in middle school, and I’m in an advanced class so it’s kind of hard to understand all of it. So when I’m not given instruction, I have nothing to base anything off of. I’m just like I have to do this and I don’t know how,” Cameron said of his struggle to do his math work when he is consistently missing instructional time.
Well into November, Cameron’s father Kasey Brown says the bus is still late at least twice a week, getting to school 10-15 minutes after class has started.
On one recent occasion, Kasey said the bus driver forgot to come to their bus stop entirely. He says Cameron was over an hour late getting to school that day, and missed his entire math class.
The Browns say the bus driver shortage also means Cameron’s bus is late in the afternoons and usually does not get home in the afternoons until after 5. School lets out at 3:30 p.m.
The Browns have lost confidence the bus delays will be resolved anytime soon. School transportation administrators agree that with about two dozen bus driver positions they are still trying to fill, it could easily be next semester, if not next year, before the driver shortages and bus delays are completely resolved.
Cameron’s parents both work full-time, and say driving him the 35-40 minutes it takes to get to and from Holly Shelter Middle School in traffic is not feasible. They have requested to have Cameron transferred to Trask Middle School, which is close enough to their house that they could drive him if the bus was late, but their transfer request was denied.
“I wasn’t expecting some kind of special treatment. I just want to get my child to school on time. That’s it. I just want my kid to get to school on time so he can learn,” Cameron’s father Kasey Brown told us of his exasperation.
According to the transfer denial letter Superintendent Tim Markley sent Kasey on Oct. 11, “In order to be granted a school reassignment on the basis of hardship, a parent must demonstrate a serious and continuing hardship which cannot reasonably be eliminated or reduced by means other than a reassignment. Your hardship does not mean the hardship guidelines.”
Kasey said he has appealed that denial to the school board.
“Someone needs to be held accountable. The buck needs to stop somewhere,” Kasey said.
We reached out to several members of the New Hanover County school board about the Browns’ situation. Board Chairwoman Lisa Estep said she was unable to discuss specific student concerns, but that “most, if not all of the board is and has been aware and very concerned about the ongoing transportation issues.”
Estep did say the board tries to respond to complaints as quickly as possible.
“I would hope that any school would be understanding when a student arrives late because of factors outside of that student’s control, and that every effort would be made to allow students to make up missed work and missed information without penalty in situations where there is a chronic late bus,” Estep added.
Fellow board members Nelson Beaulieu, Judy Justice, and David Wortman were also vocal in the November board meeting about their concerns over the bus driver shortage. Although they didn’t necessarily support the solution Justice proposed of raising driver pay by $2/hour, they did agree to a slight increase, raising starting pay for bus drivers to $14/hour, up from $13.41.
Beaulieu, Justice and Wortman voiced interest in signing bonuses for new drivers, and referral bonuses for existing drivers who get friends to apply for open bus driver jobs as ways to alleviate current driver shortages. Beaulieu said he would try to get those initiatives on the agenda for a vote at the December board meeting.