Boosting Hourly Pay is One Way to Ease School Bus Driver Shortage

For most people, the yellow school bus has a straightforward purpose: to get kids to and from school safely and in a timely manner each day. The concept is so simple it borders on mundane, but ask any school transportation official, bus driver, or school principal and it will be clear that the yellow school bus is perhaps the most crucial component of the school day for many kids.

Bus transportation has a bigger impact on education than most people would realize. It affects student attendance, school start and end times, family schedules, and more. It may even affect equitable access to school choice options, such as magnet schools and early colleges.

Moving students in Wake County is an undertaking that rivals some urban transit systems. School buses transport almost half of all WCPSS students, about 70,000 kids, twice a day. In comparison, GoRaleigh’s fleet of buses transports about 17,000 people per day on average according to that agency’s statistics.

WCPSS school buses make 18,000 stops to collect and drop off kids and travel more than 81,000 miles every day. If all 765 WCPSS school buses were lined up end-to-end, the line would stretch 6.5 miles.

Bus transportation requires drivers, supervisors, administrators, clerical staff, and maintenance technicians. Like other state employees who work for school districts across the state, transportation personnel have been left off the list when it comes to annual raises. WCPSS leaders have been working to correct this to ensure that raises for state employees also include all school personnel as well.  

That’s part of the reason why Wake County Public School System has a severe shortage of bus drivers. As of last month, WCPSS only had 713 drivers for the 765 routes, and there are more than 50 substitute drivers who are being pressed into service regularly. Comparatively, GoRaleigh has 217 drivers for 100 buses.

Salary is a key factor for qualified bus drivers in deciding where to work. In fact, WCPSS often loses bus drivers to private transportation companies and even to other public transit agencies.

According to the most recent salary schedule available from WCPSS, bus drivers start at $13.11 per hour, and max out at $21.96 after 32 years of service. As the News and Observer reported, that starting hourly wage equates to $17,043 annually. A GoTriangle bus driver, by comparison, may have a starting salary of $15 per hour makes $31,250 annually.

It’s worth noting that these comparisons are used merely to demonstrate the actual figures involved, and not to imply the differences themselves are somehow a problem. State government pays most of the school bus driver salaries and has increased pay for hourly wage earners in public schools by just 3 percent over a 10-year period compared to GoRaleigh salaries being funded primarily with a combination of local funds and rider fares giving that agency more flexibility in setting its pay scale.  

Ideally, school leaders would like to offer a wage that is competitive with other local government agencies. Without any adjustments from state government, getting there will require increase investment of local dollars. Of course, simply raising the starting salary to $15 would compress the entire scale. On the current scale it takes about 8 years to reach $15 per hour, so raising the starting wage to $15 without adjusting the rest of the scale would eliminate a quarter of the scale’s longevity. Therefore, all 32 years of the scale need to be adjusted upward.  

Raising bus driver salaries is part of a plan to lift all salaries of non-certified staff in the school system, which includes instructional assistants and clerical, child nutrition, maintenance, custodial, HVAC and other employees. The overall cost is $35 million with a plan to spread that out over five years starting with $3.8 million in the current fiscal year and continuing with $7.8 million for each additional year until 2024.

Bus driver shortages are not limited to Wake County. It’s part of a national trend that has been growing worse for the past few years caused in part by low pay, odd hours, 10-month employment, and a historically low overall unemployment. Fewer drivers means fewer routes, longer rides, and more runs for each driver.

Becoming a school bus driver also requires a commercial driver’s license and ability to pass a criminal background check. WCPSS will pay for the driver training and prepare driver candidates for the license test, and the school system holds bus driver job fairs periodically throughout the school year to boost recruitment. However, that commercial driver’s license is a commodity that can command higher salaries elsewhere with cargo that may not be as precious as school children.

When the bus ride becomes a barrier to getting to and from school, it affects parents’ decisions on where to send their kids to school especially once they decide that driving their child to school is the only viable option. This also puts more cars on the road at peak times, and car transportation is statistically less safe than school buses.

With competitive salaries, WCPSS has a better chance of retaining enough qualified and caring bus drivers to fully staff all routes. Funding this with local dollars means Wake County voters, taxpayers, and business leaders need to tell their elected officials that bus driver pay is a top priority. School bus drivers are the first and last school system employee many students see each day. It’s only fair to make sure they are paid adequately enough so that they want to continue transporting students safely and in a timely manner.

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