- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2005

RICHMOND — Wanted: Applicants seeking the responsibility of transporting as many as 78 sometimes unpredictable students to school on a 38-foot-long vehicle through congested suburban traffic.

Requirements: Obtain a commercial driver’s license and extensive training (certification training), pass criminal background checks, a drug screening and a physical exam. Sincere affection for young people is strongly preferred, even when they’re being unruly.

Pay: Relatively low.

So it isn’t surprising that many school divisions are having a tough time hiring bus drivers, and the effects are seen in drivers burdened with covering extra routes and parents upset because their children are late getting to and from school.

At Pinchbeck Elementary School in Richmond, the carpool line starts forming more than 20 minutes before dismissal time, as parents idle in their minivans and sport utility vehicles reading, listening to music or talking on the phone.

Even though her students can ride the bus, Tracy Rice said she’d rather go through this daily routine than have her two children get home more than an hour after school ends. Because they’re on the second bus run, they would have to remain at school for 45 minutes until the driver returns from the first route.

“I spend my afternoons riding around,” Miss Rice said. “But that’s OK.”

Henrico County Public Schools have 24 full-time bus drivers, plus 20 other supervisors and others pulled in to cover routes, transportation supervisor Harold Grimes said. The average driver turnover is between 10 percent and 13 percent per year; currently, there are 23 driver vacancies.

Mr. Grimes said in addition to balking at the starting salary of $13,920, or $10.69 per hour ($14,153 annually and $10.87 hourly for the upcoming school year), potential bus drivers also consider the responsibility involved, especially after recent bus accidents and violent incidents on buses. Virginia has had two fatal school-bus accidents this year; a Louisa County teenager was killed in February, and last month two Arlington County children died after their school bus collided with a trash truck.

In Tennessee, a 14-year-old boy was charged with fatally shooting bus driver Joyce Gregory in March, because, he said in a recorded statement played in court, he “hated her.”

“They’re in charge with those children. Plus, it’s hard to watch for the traffic,” Mr. Grimes said. “When it’s added together, people say: ‘Whoa, why am I trying to do this?’”

In Louisiana’s Bossier Parish, bus driver stress has increased as special-needs students are riding on the same buses as the alternative school students because there’s not enough money for separate routes, said Miki Royer, president of the district’s School Bus Operators Association.

In Boston, where a private contractor provides school bus drivers, the school district’s cost cuts have resulted in the consolidation of routes, said Steve Gillis, president of Local 8751 of the United Steelworkers Association, which represents the drivers.

“There are too few drivers to get the job done,” Mr. Gillis said. “The pressures that we are under are more children being put onto bus runs, more distance to travel in the same amount of time, routes are being designed to pick up children from four different schools in the same run.”

In Fairfax County, home to one of the nation’s largest school divisions, driver recruiting has fallen victim to the area’s good economy. The affluent region’s unemployment rate is 2.4 percent.

“Although we have people looking for work, they’re not the kind of people we can use,” including people with criminal records, driving violations or the inability to speak English, said Linda Farbry, transportation director for Fairfax County Public Schools.

Fairfax is among the school divisions that have gone to great lengths to recruit drivers, including blanketing the region with mailings and fliers and offering bonuses to school and county employees who refer drivers who remain on the job for three months.

The obvious way to attract more drivers would be to boost salaries, but the prospects of that happening are slim, said Charlie Gauthier, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

“Let’s face it. The education budget in most states is tight to say the least,” he said. ?In many states, the buses, fuel, drivers, et cetera — that part is competing with the same dollars as books, teacher salaries, computers and upgrading schools.”

Megan Williams, a mother of four, thinks potential bus drivers don’t want to put up with disrespectful children, for which she blames parents.

“I am part of the problem. I have four boys. They are the kind that don’t sit still and say, ‘Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am.’ They’re still learning that,” Mrs. Williams said. “I drive my van with my four kids in it and that’s enough. I can’t imagine a bus full of them.”

But Mr. Gauthier said good bus drivers play an important role in helping students enjoy school. They’re the “first friendly face they see? when they start school, he said. ?They do develop a rapport.”

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