Gov. Roy Cooper traveled to Charlotte Tuesday to announce $1 million to bolster bus driver training — an amount he acknowledged isn’t enough to fix a statewide problem.
The investment is meant to help tackle North Carolina’s school bus driver shortage impacting many of the state’s 115 districts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, alone, is down 30 drivers, with 25 in the training pipeline. Dozens of others are on approved leave. And the last bus-riding child was dropped off Monday, the first day of school, at about 8:20 p.m.
“Anything helps at this point,” Adam Johnson, executive director of CMS transportation, told The Charlotte Observer. “If we can shorten the window by adding more trainers, it helps. There’s a backlog right now.”
Cooper says the $1 million in federal funding will go to the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles to hire seven temporary trainers — one for each transportation region — to help expedite training new bus drivers. The money is coming from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund.
The money also will provide retention bonuses of up to $3,000 to current school bus driver training employees and purchase two dedicated training buses. The buses will help enable the DMV to conduct training sessions without relying on borrowing buses from school districts, Cooper says.
“We need more, but we can’t wait for the legislature to pass a budget,” said Cooper, who made the announcement after touring CMS’ bus lot and facility and speaking with bus drivers. “North Carolina desperately needs more school bus drivers and the way to get them is to pay them more and train them faster. If legislative Republicans would do their jobs and pass a strong public education budget now, we could better attack this challenge.”
The state budget likely will be delayed until September after negotiations have dragged out this summer. House and Senate Republicans each passed a version of the state budget bill earlier this year, but they were not able to come to an agreement on a final budget.
Driver shortages hit NC public schools
CMS operates the largest public transportation system in the state. It moves nearly 70,000 students to and from school every year and uses about 13,000 bus stops, according to a report presented to the school board earlier this month.
Johnson says the district raised bus driver pay to $18.35 last Friday and offers hiring incentives that include a $1,500 sign-on bonus. Still, shortages have forced CMS drivers to take on multiple routes and even sent Johnson out on the road.
“I’m driving, every day,” he said.
Several other districts are experiencing shortages, including Union County Public Schools operating without 17 drivers. As of Aug. 1, 68 districts reported a total of 1,559 vacancies, according to a Department of Public Instruction spokesperson.
The News & Observer reported that Monday Wake County Schools, the state’s largest district, started the school year with a 35.75% bus driver vacancy rate that’s forcing it to stretch existing routes to make sure students get service.
Until more bus drivers are hired, the district has 315 vacancies, and around 3,000 Wake County students are scheduled to arrive after classes have started at school each day, the News & Observer reported.
CMS encourages people apply
While the CMS drivers Cooper talked to Tuesday said they love their jobs, especially getting to interact with the children, the challenges are substantial.
Jabar Duncan, CMS transportation manager, says higher pay and additional resources and supports “would keep and attract drivers.”
Both the DMV and districts say a major problem is the extended time it takes to train newly hired bus drivers. It takes 52 days from the time a person applies to being able to take a route, Johnson said.
Earlier this year, Cooper proposed almost $1 million in recurring funding in his 2023-25 budget proposal to employ 10 additional school bus driver trainers within the DMV. He also proposed a 9.5% salary increase across two years for bus drivers and an 8% increase for school bus driver trainers at DMV.
“I encourage anyone who is interested to apply,” Johnson said. “We have great benefits, and we need you.”