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(WGHP) — School districts in the Piedmont Triad need hundreds of drivers for buses and other duties and are moving aggressively to lure candidates.

A survey of 19 school districts in the Piedmont Triad showed more than 300 openings to fill drivers’ seats and other related positions.

School boards have raised salaries and adopted incentives to recruit adults with commercial drivers licenses who are willing to work mornings and afternoons every day and perhaps take on additional roles for additional money.

Some 1,850 individuals are required to handle the various bus-route duties, including “yellow bus drivers,” special needs drivers and in some cases driver assistants/monitors in those districts.

The needs range from as few as two drivers in Mount Airy City Schools to 55 at Guilford County Schools and 65 at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, based on data shared by the districts in recent weeks.

The vacant-position rate is 16.4% across those 19 districts – Elkin City Schools did not respond to numerous requests for information – but smaller districts could be affected more dramatically because of high vacancy rates.

For instance Thomasville City Schools needs to fill five of its 13 existing positions, a rate of 38.5%, the highest found. Caswell County (29.4%), Asheboro (27.3%) and Alamance/Burlington (26.8%) weren’t far behind.

Those figures could have risen or fallen slightly since they were submitted to WGHP.

But the demand in smaller districts is such that some of them require teachers to be licensed and trained as bus drivers to ensure all students can be transported.

“Board policy requires most non-certified staff to be trained as drivers,” Katie C. Hursey, public information officer for Montgomery County Schools, wrote in an email. “It is up to each principal to delegate bus responsibilities while maintaining all other operations of her/his school campus.” 

To attract the needed drivers, school districts have increased pay scales, and most exceed $15 an hour as a starting salary, ranging as high as $17 in Caswell County.

Most of those jobs come with a scale for fixed raises, and there also are various incentives for attendance and performance, rising to a $5,000 bonus in Asheboro for fulfilling the role for a year.

The requirements

Bus drivers often are a combination of retirees, people looking for secondary jobs and part-time school employees.

The job, though, can be high-stress, with early hours, repetitive routes and the predictable driving stresses of large vehicles’ maneuvering through peak traffic flow and facing various types of weather. There also is the ever-difficult role of keeping order and safety among the students.

Drivers by nature are required to have dedication, punctuality and the patience required to deal with both other drivers who can be unpredictable and students who can be disruptive.

The state’s licensing requirements are simple. Candidates must:

  • Have the proper class commercial driver’s license (referred to as a CDL), with P and S endorsements.
  • Meet physical and legal requirements.
  • Complete the 3-day School Bus Driver Training Course.
  • Perhaps, based on the school district, pass written or road-skills tests.

WGHP has asked the NC Department of Transportation if there has been a decline in the applications and qualifications for those CDLs, but a DOT official responded that the data was not easy to determine because of how it is collected and communicated within the agency. He promised the information should be forthcoming.

Regulations troublesome

But at least one person who hires drivers said luring people to the field also can bring regulatory hurdles.

Jeff Johnson, transportation director at Alleghany County Schools, said government regulation associated with the CDLs is in part responsible for the shortage of drivers.

“Drivers are required to undergo extensive background checks, DOT physicals every two years, be subjected to random drug screens, healthy fees when obtaining CDL license and physicals, and maintain a clean driving record,” Johnson wrote in an email. “School bus drivers that obtain a Class B CDL License with the Passenger and School Endorsement must renew every 3 years instead of the standard 5 years. Also, most Yellow Bus Drivers have to make themselves available for the morning run and the afternoon run.

“A lot of these regulations are put in place to protect the public, but the compensation for the driver is simply not there.”  

School boards respond

Montgomery County Schools operates 57 buses, and four of them also require a bus monitor. The pay rate for drivers is $15 per hour and $12 per hour for monitors. These rates were enacted in the last academic year and were significant increases, officials said. Drivers also are school-based and dual-employed.

In many smaller school districts, drivers already are dual-role employees. Thomasville City Schools even uses dual roles – and the expanded income those bring – as an incentive in recruiting drivers.

“Our drivers are our nutrition workers, custodians, teachers’ assistants, teachers, and even administrators,” Hursey said.

“It is not uncommon to require a driver(s) to run a second route in the morning or afternoon to accommodate a vacancy and/or the absence of a coworker.”

Jeremy Miller, director of transportation at Davie County Schools, cites the dual-employment issue, too.

“We operate 68 yellow buses a day (136 routes per day),” he wrote in an email. “Currently we have 77 drivers assigned to a route. Some of those drive morning and afternoon, while others drive 1 route per day. Most of these drivers are dual employees (also employed as TA's [teachers’ assistants], custodians, school nutrition, etc.).”

He said the Davie County School board just raised the rate to $15 per hour this month, and drivers already at that rate got a 2% bump in income. Then the district offers monthly attendance bonuses of $25 to $50.

“Our schools are responsible for filling their vacancies,” Miller said. “Also, our transportation department is a good place to start if someone is looking to solely drive a bus.”