A $645,000 push from Albemarle County Public Schools to stem a persistent shortage of bus drivers is seeing positive results, but the division is eyeing a legislative change to further help with the issue.
After six months, the division is down one home-to-school driver and five relief drivers, an improvement from the end of last school year, when it was short 14 drivers.
“We have seen better recruiting, and drivers that left have come back,” said Jim Foley, transportation director for the school division. “So that’s a good sign. We’re still short. We’re always going to be hiring.”
About 170 drivers run more than 600 routes daily to get county students to and from school. Foley said 70% of the division’s students ride the bus.
When there’s not enough drivers for all the buses, transportation department staff members will jump behind the wheel and routes are split among other buses leading to longer ride times for students.
“Our mechanics spend a lot of time driving,” he said. “School field trips have been impacted. Students get to school a little bit later and get home later, sometimes, because we split routes out.”
The $645,550 budget package brought the starting wage for Albemarle bus drivers to $15.33 an hour. School bus drivers start at $16.31 per hour in Charlottesville and $14.74 for the University of Virginia’s transit service, according to job postings. The minimum wage for UVa drivers is going up to $15 an hour after Jan. 1.
Also this year, the school division lowered the number of daily hours worked needed to qualify for retirement benefits from eight to six.
“There’s an unintended consequence there because if you are collecting a pension from [the Virginia Retirement System], you can only work 80% of the hours for that job’s eligibility hours,” Foley said. “It used to be they could work 80% of eight hours, which would be 6.4. Now it’s 80% of six hours, which is 4.8.”
To open up the job to more people, Albemarle County is planning to lobby lawmakers next legislative session to support designating school bus drivers as a critical shortage area. That would allow people who currently are collecting retirement benefits through VRS to drive a bus and still receive their pension.
In Virginia, the Department of Education reports annually to the General Assembly about critical shortage teaching areas that are determined by either a surveyof school divisions or if three or fewer qualified candidates apply for a school job vacancy.
Foley said the VRS eligibility change in this year’s budget affected eight drivers. One opted to stop receiving their pension while another retired.
“For the other six, we split their routes, so one would drive in the a.m. and one would drive in the p.m.,” he said. “Just by doing this [bill], we would get three more drivers because the bill would allow them to work eight hours and still receive a pension. That’s what we’re working on right now.”
Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, said he’s drafted a bill to add bus drivers to the list of positions considered a critical shortage area.
Foley said school divisions across Virginia are experiencing a shortage of school bus drivers, according to a survey through the Virginia Association of Pupil Transportation.
A shortage is when a school division has budgeted positions that it can’t fill, he said.
Foley said the budget changes have helped the division to provide transportation for field trips and athletic and afterschool programs. When the division can’t provide transportation, it charters a bus for student trips.
“But a charter is three times the cost of us doing it,” he said.
Since Foley took over the transportation department in 2010, it has been fully staffed for only two weeks.
He said the shortage of drivers has an impact on student management and relationships.
“Having a substitute driver is like having a substitute teacher,” he said. “They don’t know the kids and the kids try to take advantage of that ... Plus, you are trying to manage three classrooms of students through a mirror. And, oh, by the way, you are driving an eight-ton vehicle.”
Training for each driver costs about $5,500 to $6,000, Foley said. That includes paying for the commercial driver’s license and the staff time involved. He’s expecting to start another class in February.
“It should be a much more attractive job because you are making two bucks more an hour, you are qualifying for VRS retirement, which is a great benefit,” he said.