With less than a month to go before the first day of school, the Richmond County school system still doesn't know how many bus drivers it will have -- or need.
And it likely won't until very close to that important date, Aug. 8, partly because of how difficult it is to recruit drivers and determine how many of last year's drivers will return, Transportation Director Jimmy Wiley said.
"We're off to a good start, but I don't know right now who's not going to return for various reasons," he said. "We won't know until right before school starts."
Schools spokesman Louis Svehla said budget constraints are another factor in the uncertainty about the number of drivers needed. The school system is working to combine some routes, he said.
"The reason is due to the magnet support plan submitted to the board," Svehla said. "As we continue through this process and get closer to the school year, we will have a better idea of exactly what is needed."
When Superintendent Frank Roberson called on teachers and other district employees in November to consider taking on bus routes for additional pay, the district was struggling to cover the routes to and from school.
With 158 full-time drivers transporting about 22,000 students a day, there was no room for error. Any absence for any reason would force some drivers to take on an extra route or two, causing students to be late.
What typically is a problem for school districts for the first couple of weeks turned into a yearlong saga for Richmond County, which never was able to reach its ideal level of 170 drivers.
Every day, principals and teachers across the district could almost count on students arriving late or waiting up to an hour after school to be taken home.
One parent at Garrett Elementary, Mike McGahee, said his stepson had been dropped off or picked up late "every now and then" and sometimes was left standing in the rain or cold waiting for the bus with other pupils.
Even at Hephzibah Middle School, where bus drivers received high marks, pupils Marita Thompson and Brianna Hurst said they had been dropped off as many as 20 minutes after the tardy bell rang. Most of the time, they stressed, their bus was on schedule or close to it.
Wiley said recruiting drivers is a year-round process. One thing that makes it difficult is that they must have a clean driving record and pass a screening process, including criminal background check and drug test.
Because they have contact with children, drivers are required to have "good moral character," according to the Georgia Department of Education.
"We want to make sure every Richmond County school bus driver is highly qualified to transport our students," Wiley said. "There are no shortcuts. The test -- the training -- is rigid. We have to have qualified drivers behind the wheel of every Richmond County school bus."
Wiley said the amount of time spent on training and testing - all while would-be drivers are not drawing a paycheck - can be a deterrent. And like any job, there is turnover, including resignations and retirements.
Even with these challenges, Wiley said he is optimistic this year will go more smoothly than last year.