The Columbia County School system is appealing to military retirees, stay-at-home moms and those who want to jump-start their careers to help them fill the 11 openings they have for assistant bus drivers.
School system officials would like to have 25 fully trained and licensed assistant bus drivers to fill in for its regular staff of 136 drivers. But it has only 14 of those positions filled and nine of those employees are trainees.
"That means I have five people who are fully licensed to cover a staff of 136 drivers, so you can imagine," said Shirley Doolittle, Columbia County Director of Transportation. "How would I spread five? You can't drive when you're sick; you can't drive if you have a fever."
Assistant drivers work everyday but don't have an assigned route.
Mrs. Doolittle said in the past two weeks there has been an average of nine to 10 bus drivers absent each day, and sometimes that number climbs as high as 14.
Not having a full complement of available assistant drivers can cause problems and delays, school officials said.
"You end up double-loading, which puts increased numbers on the buses - not illegal numbers - and you have delays," Mrs. Doolittle said. "It's very frustrating to parents because it changes schedules."
The lack of assistant drivers was one point recently discussed when the school board and school officials met with bus drivers, many of whom have threatened to unionize.
"(Having to double-load) means I would pile all my kids on the bus and then another load from that same school on the bus," said Pam Sullivent, who has spearheaded the effort to have Columbia County drivers join Teamsters Local 528. "Or, I would take my kids and then go back and get the other kids and take those home. That means those kids would get home late."
Mrs. Doolittle said it's been difficult to hire assistants because they are guaranteed only three hours of work each day. A typical bus driver works from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. and from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m.
Bus assistants also are paid less - $9.37 an hour - while regular drivers start at $13.82 an hour. The assistants do have access to the insurance programs and benefits the school system offers.
In addition to the 14 assistant drivers, the county has two substitute bus drivers who, similarly to substitute teachers, are on call. However, they are not eligible for benefits. They are paid $5.35 an hour.
In Richmond County, there are 175 regular drivers and only five permanent standby drivers (the same position as Columbia County's bus assistants). Richmond County has 22 substitute drivers to call on, said Mike Shinn, director of transportation for the Augusta-Richmond County School System. But the system, he said, can never have enough substitutes. All of his substitutes that want to work are employed almost every day. It's not uncommon, he said, to have 20 bus drivers absent each day.
"We wish we had about 20 more to draw from," Mr. Shinn said. "We try to recruit everyone we can. People underestimate how hard it is to get substitute bus drivers."
Mr. Shinn said he gets piles of applications, but when they are screened, the numbers drop quickly. Mrs. Doolittle agrees that everyone does not have what it takes to be a bus driver.
"Think about the responsibility," Mrs. Doolittle said. "You are driving a large vehicle, and you are responsible for children. If you were offering a 40-hour work week at $9.37, I'm sure you'd have some people standing in line."
In Richmond County, substitute drivers are paid $5.95 an hour and standby drivers start at $9.62 an hour, but they are guaranteed seven hours a day. On some rural routes, they might actually work more than eight hours, Mr. Shinn said.
After they are licensed, substitute drivers are given first consideration when a bus driver position becomes available.
"It's a lot of training and time spent," Mrs. Doolittle said. "... It's a lot of work."
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.
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