Bus driver shortages plague Aiken, Columbia, Richmond county schools

Thursday, March 1, 2012 10:22 PM
Last updated Friday, March 2, 2012 12:50 AM
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On any given day, public school bus drivers have to deal with miles of extra work, pushy parents and a bus full of restless children.

Craig Houghton Elementary School pupils wait to get on the bus. Richmond County needs about 20 more drivers.  JACKIE RICCIARDI/STAFF
JACKIE RICCIARDI/STAFF
Craig Houghton Elementary School pupils wait to get on the bus. Richmond County needs about 20 more drivers.

They take on the routes left behind by colleagues who called in sick and act as peacekeepers from the rearview mirror during student arguments.

“We’ve got to be a mother, a father and a preacher all in one,” said Sallie Thomas, a Richmond County school bus driver for 30 years.

Recruitment and retention problems have caused a shortage of bus drivers in the Richmond, Columbia and Aiken county school systems, creating a heavier workload for the existing employees.

The problem is worse in some areas than others, but the reasons for the empty driver seats are similar.

By nature, the job comes with high responsibility with low pay and awkward hours.

Drivers often leave when better job prospects come along, family members get ill or employees approach retirement, said Jimmie Wiley, the Richmond County school system’s transportation director.

“Some of it could be the behavior of some of our students, too,” Wiley said. “The school bus is an extension of the classroom. … You got bullying on school buses and in schools. A lot of that plays a part in recruiting.”

With a staff of about 150 drivers, the district needs about 20 more to run efficiently, Wiley said. The department hired 15 drivers over this school year, but employees are often absent and there is a high turnover rate.

On average, nearly 20 drivers call in sick or are absent every day, causing the department to have to double or triple routes on an already thin fleet of drivers.

“It affects us tremendously,” Wiley said. “At 5 o’clock in the morning, you may plan for what you already know … and then you get the calls of, ‘Well, I was en route to work, I’ve had an emergency or during the course of the morning someone got sick.’ You get this call at 5 a.m., and you have to go to plan B and C.”

The Aiken County school system is dealing with the worst driver shortage it has seen in recent years, according to Transportation Manager Maria McClure.

The system needs about 18 more drivers to add to its current 200-person staff but is having trouble finding qualified people to fit the job.

“We’re losing some of them because of medical reasons, we’ve lost some to other jobs and it’s just progressively gotten worse,” she said. “We’re having to double routes, which means students are getting to school late and they’re getting home late.”

McClure said applicants can’t have a DUI or more than four points on their driving record, which thins the applicant pool. Drivers also have to be willing to work split days with breaks over the summer and holidays with no pay.

The downsides make turnover an issue. McClure said many drivers don’t realize the high-stress job they are signing up for.

Absenteeism is a problem in the Columbia County school system, which is short of a full staff by about seven drivers.

Transportation Director Dewayne Porter said that because drivers come in contact with more than 60 kids a day, sickness becomes an everyday occurrence.

“It’s difficult to find somebody that’s a good fit to be a bus driver,” he said. “How many people do you know are willing to go through the training, first of all? Second of all, you’re responsible for approximately 120 kids a day. … It’s probably the toughest job we have in the school system.”

A shortage of bus drivers is not uncommon across the country, but it also is not the norm, according to Michael Martin, the executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

Experts have been unable to determine why driver shortages occur in some places and not others, but Martin said common factors are community support and budget issues.

When a district has financial problems, bus equipment is normally older, pay is less and morale is lower, so recruiting can be difficult, he said.

Martin said the employees must have support from the schools, parents and the community at large to stay on the job for a long time.

“When you’re talking about a job that pays the rough equivalent of something that might be a retail job or something in food service, it’s got pretty high barriers to entry,” Martin said.

Thomas said the problem in Richmond County has to do with morale more than anything else. Drivers are often frustrated with route designs and feel that their concerns are not heard by the school board.

Moreover, parents at times step onto buses at stops to yell at drivers or deal with children, she said.

In January, a father was arrested after he flagged a driver down, punched out a window and tried to pull her out of the bus after she followed protocol by not letting the man’s child off the bus in a parking lot.

“Every driver out there is looking for a different job,” she said. “You get pushed to the point that as much as you care about the kids and as much as you care about the situation … people aren’t staying.”

WANT TO DRIVE?

If you’re interested in applying to be a school bus driver, contact the district’s transportation department.

Richmond County: (706) 796-4777 or
www.rcboe.org.

Aiken County: (803) 593-7123, ask for Candy Hayes.

Columbia County: (706) 541-0657.

Comments (6) Add comment
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avidreader
3259
Points
avidreader 03/02/12 - 06:30 am
1
0
In a high school, first

In a high school, first period is the worst of the day. Many school buses are often late, and then the kids still go to the cafeteria to eat. By the time they get to class, the lesson for the day is already in full swing, and the teacher has to deal with the constant disruption of tardy children.

Teachers are supposed to follow a curriculum guide that determines the amount of time spent on an instructional unit. First period is a joke. With all the interruptions, the first class of the day is always significantly behind the middle-of-the-day periods.

I have often entertained the idea that AYP classes -- English, Math, etc. -- should not be scheduled for first period. I miss the days when Homeroom was scheduled every day for the first fifteen minutes of the school day. All of the stragglers did not affect instruction. It's very difficult to teach a class at 7:35 in the morning when four, five, or six students are drifting in at variable speeds.

Oh well! Someday I will rule the world, and then others can be angry with my plans and policies. And yes, I have an alternative plan for school busses, but it involves parental participation. Ha! Amen!

buzzman1946
24
Points
buzzman1946 03/02/12 - 06:57 am
1
0
I would not want to drive a

I would not want to drive a bus,because the bus driver has no control of the unruly kids. The kids are out of control.and their parents defend them. Bus drivers are fired or suspended just on the accusation of a child. The driver can write up a child over and over but nothing is done,cameras should be put on the busses,the school says that would violate their privacy, well I dont think so,rember extension of school,paid for by tax dollars.

Mac2406
22
Points
Mac2406 03/02/12 - 09:03 am
2
0
I often listen to the forum

I often listen to the forum of discussions with the problems Richmond and Columbia County school system has with transportation and problems with kids on buses. My first question is: Has the school superintendents, director of transportation departments, school board members, and any school administrators, ridden on the buses with the drivers and kids? This would include elementary, middle, and high school. Is there a suggestion box available for employees to solicit suggestions, and if there is, are they being implemented? What kind of incentives are there for drivers? Second, do the bus drivers live in their district where they pickup kids, are the buses divided into sectors and kept in those districts to reduce fuel and maintenance cost for the buses? Sometimes, higher up have to get into the trenches to evaluate and experience the injury, in order to treat the wound.

Tots
25988
Points
Tots 03/02/12 - 12:15 pm
1
0
Most buses have cameras on

Most buses have cameras on them now,but it's very hard to get to see the tape..You have to ask to have your tape pulled then give up your time to go view it..They have one man in charge of the cameras ..

But let some parent or student say you said or did something wrong, and boy they sure pull that tape fast.

Improve the moral at work and that would help with the attendance.
The shed the drivers clock into and out of everyday is so cut off from the transportation office and shop,it makes you feel like a redhead stepchild they wished would just go away.. Most days, nobody from the office is down there .It needs to be more professional..

raul
5011
Points
raul 03/02/12 - 12:37 pm
0
0
How about eliminating the

How about eliminating the "free" bus transportation system and make parents responsible for getting the kids to school and back?

Tots
25988
Points
Tots 03/05/12 - 12:38 pm
0
0
I'm all for free

I'm all for free transportation to and from your closest zoned school.
But if a parent and child decides to go out of zone,they should have to pay a fee..If your child is in- any special programs, like gifted and the other special programs, then they should pay a bus fee.. If your child misses the bus and the driver has to go back they need to pay ..This has been, a very big problem with those students who go to the magnet schools..

They get their family or friends to bring them to the schools after the magnet buses have left...STOP sending buses back to get magnet students... This has been going on for years,now many parents and students use R.C.B.O.E.Transportation as their own taxi service..Start making them pay or put them back in their zoned schools..

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