When a stressful school year let out for summer, the Richmond County School Transportation Department began thinking about change.
The 2011-12 school year kicked off with buses running hours behind schedule and continued to the last day with an average of 28 drivers marked absent every morning.
After the Richmond County Board of Education considered outsourcing the management of transportation to an outside company, Transportation Director Jimmie Wiley has stepped up efforts for improvement.
The department is holding a job fair June 4 to recruit as many bus drivers as possible along with two mechanics. The goal is to build a staff of drivers to eliminate chronic absenteeism and help routes run on time.
“We’re trying to be proactive and get in front of where we were last year,” Wiley said. “When we started last year, we started with a rocky start.”
Wiley said many past problems began with the logistics. Last year he had to design 152 bus routes using 140 drivers with an average of 28 drivers calling out of work every day. It got so desperate that if a driver said he locked his keys in his car and couldn’t come to work, Wiley offered to pick him up at home.
Along with the attendance issue was the adjustment period needed to perfect a new system for transporting magnet school students. The department had to balance the normal zone routes while shuttling magnet students across the district, which caused buses to run at times two hours late the first two weeks of school.
The department received 5,000 angry calls from parents on the first day, all wanting to blame Wiley, but the director bit his tongue.
“I can’t say ‘Ma’am or sir, we are concerned about 22,000 plus students, not just your child,’” Wiley said. “Transportation is a department that’s not for everybody. Everybody wants what they want when they want it. You have to have a thick skin.”
To reform the department, Wiley said recruitment of drivers has to become easier.
Candidates have to undergo about six weeks of unpaid training before they can start. They have to have a clean driving record, no DUIs and pass a drug test – requirements that thin the pool from the get-go.
If the department starts training 10 candidates, they often dwindle to five after orientation and to one after the written test, said Janet Freeman, an operations manager.
Once the department gets a fleet of employees, drivers have to stay committed. They deal with early mornings, rowdy students and parents who sometimes step on the buses to complain.
“Fifty percent of the battle is a good attitude and a love for children,” Wiley said.
Frank George, a bus mechanic and part-time driver, said he got involved in the department through a talent for mechanics and a love for children. He worked on diesel engines and fixed generators for the U.S. Army for 20 years. He took a job as a mechanic for the school system six years ago, but works as a driver as needed to help the slim staff.
“I care about kids, I do everything I can to raise mine right ... so I try to do the same for every one I come across,” George said. “I do it because I love the kids, and if I don’t do it, who will?”
George said the job is rewarding but demanding. Drivers have to keep an eye on the road and a watch on each of the pupils in the rearview mirror.
Drivers have to have a good work ethic and be comfortable with the pay – $7.25 an hour for a sub driver and $9.44 for full time.
Department staff designs routes and assigns drivers weeks ahead of when school begins based on the population of neighborhoods.
Richmond County Board of Education member Frank Dolan said 30 percent of children lived at different addresses last year than what was on file on the first day.
The confusion forces the transportation department to have to readjust routes and drivers while school is in session when routes should have been finalized during the summer.
“It has to do with children having children, moving different places, rent comes up and they move,” Dolan said. “I’m encouraged that (Wiley’s) thinking ahead, but we have other problems, too.”
Wiley is encouraging all qualified candidates to apply, noting schedules are available for part-time and full-time work.
The job is rewarding, he said, especially because drivers are a part of a network that contributes to a child’s success in education.
“My job is to get them there on time, the lunch room director’s job is to feed them on time and the homeroom teacher’s job is to teach them on time,” Wiley said. “There’s a connection there.”