Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 6, 2018

Fatal crash fallout: Driver shortage

New age limit for drivers among factors leading to statewide hiring difficulties

Schools across Tennessee are having a difficult time hiring and keeping school bus drivers to ferry nearly 882,000 public school children to and from class every day.

Low pay, split schedules, background checks and drug testing, life-and-death responsibility for children, bad roads and traffic jams and other safety concerns limit the candidate pool.

Hamilton County has been in the spotlight of the issue since the Nov. 21, 2016 school bus crash in which six children were killed and another 31 injured. The driver in that crash, Johnthony Walker, was 24 at the time of the accident, and he was found guilty last month of six counts of criminally negligent homicide.

As a result of that tragedy, the state passed an updated bus driver law which includes an age limit. All drivers must be 25 years old.

The new law also includes increased training, monitoring and better compliance with state and federal laws, and putting more pressure on school districts to find and keep qualified drivers. Whether a system has its own drivers or uses contractors, there will be additional oversight statewide. Before the new law, the minimum age for drivers was 21. Current drivers between 21 and 25 will be grandfathered in. There is no maximum age cutoff point as long as the driver can maintain a commercial drivers’ license.

The new age requirement has certainly affected staffing in the Chattanooga area, says David Eaves, transportation supervisor of Hamilton County schools. A former operations manager with Fed Ex, Eaves was hired after the accident and has been on job about eight months.

In Hamilton County, 31 drivers are employee contractors who were grandfathered in several years ago, with employee health benefits. The rest, 37 of them, are independent contractors who do not get insurance, but recently received a bonus of $9,500 annually to help with their insurance, or other costs.

The remaining 171 contracts are handled through Durham. Hamilton County transports more than 20,000 students each day along 231 daily bus routes. Walker was a contractor from Durham School Services, a national company that transports more than 1 million students daily nationwide.

“When I first got in this position we took some routes over from Durham, and I was able to fill 18 spots from our sub-driver pool,” Eaves adds.

“It hasn’t really affected us, but it has affected Durham because the driver [in the bus crash] was a Durham driver.’’

The new bus safety bill includes measures to increase state oversight of pupil transportation; develop and deliver a mandatory annual training program for all transportation supervisors, establish a system for monitoring district and charter school compliance with state and federal laws regarding student transportation services and prepare and annually update and disseminate guidelines on best practices for the management of student transportation services.

In Chattanooga, Eaves says if the schools do get more contractors from Durham School Services, the system will need more staffing in the office to support it. As of right now, they are a staff of four – Eaves, two routers, one for regular education and one for special education, and a secretary.

“We had a consulting firm that came in here and looked at our model, and they recommended that we get an assistant director and a safety specialist, which I’m working on right now,” he explains. “As we add more routes, we should have more staffing. That’s what I found out through FedEx. It doesn’t do any good to do all this without more staffing.”

Eaves, who moved to Florida for 20 years before returning to Chattanooga, says interstates have not been improved in the years he’s been away, and that combined with the mountainous geography and almost certain traffic makes for some very tight routes.

“There’s not any room for error if you’re stuck in traffic, and every Friday there’s delays,” he says.

‘Those are my kids’

Suzanne Adams has been driving for Metro Nashville Public Schools for 25 years and loves her job driving students at Shayne Elementary, Oliver Middle and Overton High School.

“When they’re on my bus, they’re mine. Those are my kids,” she says. But the increasing traffic, capped pay and demands of the job make it difficult to keep the buses staffed at capacity, which only puts more of a strain on the rest of the drivers.

“They don’t have enough drivers,” Adams adds, although Metro School officials say they currently have a full roster of drivers.

MNPS transports between 35,000 and 50,000 kids on any single day. To accomplish this task, the system has almost 500 drivers covering 500 routes in the morning and afternoon, with most of those drivers completing three trips within each route.

“In effect, MNPS is running a transportation company larger than those in many cities’ public transit systems,” explains Ken Stark, executive officer of operations for MNPS. “It is a complicated task under the best of conditions and we usually do it well. However, buses do break down and people do become ill. We do have plans in place to accommodate those occurrences but they do cause us to run late on occasion.

“Not having a full roster means that we have to find other ways to cover routes,” Stark adds. “This can mean having a bus make a double trip or shifting students to another bus that may have room. Those things can cause buses to run late, the drivers don’t know the students, the students don’t know the drivers. Everything is more complicated, and that leads to service issues.”

In 2015, MNPS started the school year 150 drivers short, a hit so severe it affected about a quarter of the bus routes. After developing a long-term strategy to hire and retain drivers, MNPS now guarantees 40-hour weeks. It still means a split shift for drivers, but now there is a guarantee it will be more than the typical six-hour day.

“Most places don’t guarantee the eight hours a day,” Stark points out.

Drivers also were given a $1.01 raise, bumping them from $13.09 to $14.10 an hour. Since then Stark notes raises have been in line with districtwide cost of living adjustments, and new drivers get a step increase every six months for the first two years rather than yearly step increases.

“Like most districts, there is a lot of coming and going with bus drivers,” Stark says. “While we are working to reduce the total number needed by improving our efficiency, we are continuously recruiting and hiring.”

Adams says she is paid for eight hours a day and says the 5:30-9:30 a.m. and 1:30-5:30 p.m. split shift hours work for her, but she understands those hours don’t work for all.

Still, Adams says her pay tops out at $20 per hour, so her seniority doesn’t matter. Drivers with a decade less experience are making the same.

Drivers don’t get paid when there are snow days, and they don’t get paid during scheduled holiday breaks. And that can be frustrating.

“I’m a professional,” she points out. “I have to have a CDL [commercial drivers’ license} to have this job.”

Wilson County Schools started the school year with a bus driver shortage so extreme it had to cancel routes. So, the county bumped the starting rate by $3, from $13.69 to $16.69 an hour. With seniority, drivers can climb to as much as $24 an hour.

Pay for drivers in Williamson County starts at $17.25 an hour with paid full-time benefits.

But even great health insurance can’t combat a dreaded split shift that results in work for a few hours in the morning and then another few in the afternoon. In Sumner County, hiring enough bus drivers remains one of the school district’s biggest challenges, where they have proposed a 4 percent pay increase for drivers.

Contractors in Knox County

“Having enough bus drivers is an everyday struggle, and it has been for a couple of years,” says Russ Oaks, chief operating officer for Knox County Schools. “Right now, today, we only have one contractor that’s having significant driver difficulties, and that contractor has drivers in the training program so that if everything stays on course, they should be in decent shape in a couple of weeks.”

Knox County Schools transport about 20,000 students a day on 343 buses covering almost 20,000 miles. The system uses only contractors to get the job done, about 70 different ones. The schools also have contractors they use solely for shuttle service, using SUVs and minivans, for more point-to-point service than the scheduled bus kind of service.

“We want to give our contractors the resources to be able to provide equipment, we’ve been trying to reduce the age of the fleet and increase driver compensation,” Oaks adds.

Districts around the state differ in how they staff drivers. Some fully contract for all of their buses. Some places own their buses and contract for drivers. Some own their own buses and staff their own drivers.

In Knox County where all the drivers are through independent contractors, drivers still need to be approved for employment through the school district before the contractor could place them in the pool for the schools. Some requirements include passing a background check and pre-employment drug testing. Once drivers are employed with the Department of Transportation, they are placed in a random drug testing pool to be tested periodically while they’re actively driving.

“We look closely at the background checks that come in on drivers,” Oaks explains. “And I can tell you some of our driver challenges in Knox County are not that we don’t have enough applicants, but we wind up turning back a significant number of applicants for issues with the background check that may show that they would be a problematic candidate.”

School districts will also have to develop formal policies for responding to school bus safety complaints, and those that contract out their bus service will need to have a transportation supervisor to oversee the service.

“Operating safe transportation is incredibly important to us, and when we have a problem we want to address it as quickly and as effectively as we can,” acknowledges Oaks. “I just would want the community to recognize what the bus drivers do on a daily basis, and how demanding their job is, and how high the expectations are.

“Any parent who’s driven a car with three kids in the back seat should be able to understand the challenges that the bus drivers face with 65 kids in the back seat. So, we have a tremendous amount of respect for them, and we expect a tremendous amount from them.”

Adams says she is hopeful drivers will be held responsible, and that raising the age limit might also help mitigate turnover. But one thing it won’t help is the other drivers on the road, ignoring stop signs and blowing horns in impatience.

“We are carrying the most important thing in this entire world, your children,” she points out. “And we’re responsible for them. I have 84 elementary kids sitting behind me. And I’m trying to watch my children and I’m trying to watch the road, all at the same time.

“And when I’m unloading them I don’t have to worry about me, whether I’m stopped. I have to worry about the other traffic coming by that may hit your child that’s not looking. People run our stop signs every single day, every day. And that’s hard.”

Knox County has also initiated a training program over the last 12-18 months that puts all new drivers through a course to ensure they have specific skillsets before they are put on the bus. Additional training is done periodically throughout the year.

Every 18-24 months, a trained transportation safety officer who will meet a driver in the morning or in the afternoon to ride a bus through its assigned route.

The officer will then fill out a checklist with about 120 different items they are looking for the driver to be doing - or not doing - over the course of that route. If they identify recurring short comings with drivers, they’ll set up a class.

“Drivers are the heart of the transportation system,” Oaks says. “The drivers are the ones that make it run. They’re the ones who, every day, ensure that it’s safe, and that the buses are running on time, and the kids are getting the support that they need.

“Our drivers, in most cases, are the first person associated with the school system that a kid sees every day and the last person they see when they go home. And, how they operate their bus, whether they’re on time, and whether it is a pleasant or acceptable experience for the kid sets the tone for what the rest of their educational experience is.”

Adams adds despite all the frustrations, she wouldn’t want to be doing anything different, thanks to her passengers.

“I do love it. I wouldn’t be doing it this long if I didn’t,” Adams says. “I love my children and it is important that I am on time and I get them there.

“And it’s important that I’m there all the time so they don’t have a different driver every day. They look for me. I’m a familiar face. I’m their ‘good morning’ every day. I’m their ‘have a nice day’ every afternoon. And children need that.

“Nobody on my school bus can ever tell you somebody was not nice to them that day, not said ‘good morning’ or ‘have a good day.’ Nobody. I say that to every single one of them.”