Wake County school buses will become more crowded this fall because of an ongoing shortage of drivers that will lead to fewer buses on the road and longer ride times for students.
Wake school administrators said Tuesday that when traditional-calendar schools reopen Aug. 29 there will be 52 fewer bus routes than compared to last school year. The shortage of drivers means the potential that some days no school transportation will be available on some routes.
Last school year, it was not uncommon for schools to tell families that they were responsible to provide their own transportation if no driver was available that day.
“Some buses may not be able to run at all on a given day if too many drivers are absent,” the school district said in an email Tuesday to families of school bus riders. “Schools and parents will be notified as quickly as possible when that is the case.”
There’s a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers. It’s forced the remaining bus drivers to pick up more routes.
Last October, some Wake bus drivers called in sick to protest working conditions. The sickout led to long carpool lines at many schools as parents drove their children to and from class.
The district made changes such as offering bonuses and raising the starting pay for drivers to $17.20 an hour. But even with the higher pay, Wake said that 106 drivers had resigned over the past year as of Aug. 2.
“What we do know is that our bus drivers are truly amazing people,” said school board chairwoman Lindsay Mahaffey. “They care about our students. We also know this is a very hard job.”
Bob Snidemiller, the district’s senior director of transportation, cited the tight labor market. He said school districts such as Johnston County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg offer higher starting salaries, although Wake has narrowed the starting pay gap.
The state funds the base salaries of bus drivers. School districts often supplement the pay with local funds.
Only a few new drivers will come from the 32 applicants in the district’s July training class.
In the 2014-15 school year, Wake had 928 bus routes. The district will be down to 584 routes this fall. Wake has 615 bus drivers, 55 of whom are permanent substitutes who fill in when a driver is out.
This year’s 52-route reduction comes after 71 routes were cut last school year.
“We knew this was going to be a tough presentation,” Mahaffey said after Snidemiller addressed the board. “There’s no positive out of this.”
Longer bus rides
Snidemiller said the situation will be even more complicated this fall because of the need to serve four new schools and the return of students who had been attending the Virtual Academy during the pandemic.
The fewer routes mean Wake will stretch bus ride times so that run times are “slightly longer.” More buses will be at capacity.
More crowded buses will mean a need for improved safety measures, Snidemiller said.
The driver shortage also means fewer “discipline” runs, where students who aren’t getting along are split on separate buses, Snidemiller told the board.
Wake will increase the number of shared runs when drivers pick up a group of students to take to school before going back out to get a second group to the campus.
Wake’s message warned families that some students will need to arrive as early as 40 minutes before the school day begins. In the afternoon, some students may need to wait at school for their bus to make its first run before it can return to collect riders for its second run.
Shortage of special-ed drivers
Special-education students will also feel the pain this fall.
Wake contracts with private vendors to transport special-needs students who can’t ride a regular yellow school bus.
The private vendors have also had difficulties finding drivers, leading last school year to 200 to 250 students without daily on-time service.
The vendors are supposed to run 20 more routes this fall to serve 4,000 students who are expected to receive contracted transportation. Their runs will be longer.
But Snidemiller said the vendors are 90 drivers short of the planned routes after two companies requested to terminate their contract. This shortage will affect about 800 students.
The result is that special-needs students will also face “slightly longer rides” and the risk of uncovered routes where no driver is available on some days.
Snidemiller said that a stipend will be provided if a parent is willing to transport their child to school if the contract transportation route is uncovered.
“We know that we will have uncovered routes,” Snidemiller said.