Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools have steadily whittled away at a bus driver shortage that caused students to arrive tardy earlier this school year.
There are six openings for new bus drivers, compared to the 13 openings in October and 22 in August. School officials said four people are being trained to fill positions.
W-JCC uses 125 school buses daily for 15 schools, with a little more than 640 bus runs a day. That does not include field trips and Virginia High School League sports trips.
Betsy Overkamp-Smith, W-JCC schools spokeswoman, said at one point transportation department staff was going beyond its normal duties to drive bus runs to help with the shortage. Now, all runs are covered by bus drivers or substitute drivers and there are no double runs.
As it continues to hire and train drivers, school officials said they do not keep track of how many students were negatively affected by the driver shortage. Students who did arrive on school buses were not marked as tardy.
A pay problem
Overkamp-Smith said bus drivers have a higher turn over rate than other positions in the division. At the Oct. 17, 2017, School Board meeting Rashard Marsh, an 11-year W-JCC bus driver, spoke on behalf of his colleagues. He said many drivers were leaving W-JCC to work for other districts and private companies because of low pay.
W-JCC drivers are paid $7.25 per hour during training, then $13.10 per hour when it is complete. By comparison, the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority’s starting wage is $13.85 per hour. Hampton Roads Transit spokesman Tom Holden said drivers start at $14.55 per hour with a pay increase every 10 months, with the max pay at $20.79 per hour.
“We are losing drivers and will continue to lose drivers unless we can improve morale,” Marsh said.
At the Jan. 16 W-JCC School Board budget retreat, board members supported increasing the number of contracted hours for bus drivers. Currently, W-JCC bus drivers are contracted for 30 hours a week, but usually end up working 35. While bus drivers are paid for the extra time, they usually have to wait a month to get the money. If the hours are included in their contract, they will get the money upfront.
At the same budget retreat, board members also supported increasing the wage of substitute bus drivers to $12.76 an hour, 50 cents more than they currently make.
A training process
Virginia schools can’t pull any licensed driver off the street and put them behind the wheel of a school bus.
New drivers must spend 24 hours in the classroom, 12 hours on the road with an instructor, pass a road test and spend another 12 hours on the road with students and an instructor. Applicants must also take adult/child CPR and basic first aid training sessions through the department.
To drive a school bus in Virginia, applicants must obtain a commercial drivers license and get a passenger endorsement added to their license, which adds another four tests on top of their initial license test. A commercial license costs $8 a year to own. The DMV requires drivers pay at least $20 in fees up front. While the school system pays for drivers classes, it does not pay for commercial licenses.
Overkamp-Smith said only one-third of drivers complete and pass training and the required background checks.
The bus driver shortage may not be a one-year issue.
The opening of James Blair Middle School next year may strain bus driver staffing. Overkamp-Smith said the school system will not know how many bus drivers it will need next year until middle schools are redistricted, a final map has been adopted and bus runs are developed. The new bus routes will not be announced until late August.
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Amelia Heymann can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on twitter @HeymannAmelia.