PHOTO: School buses

LATE last month, Stafford School Superintendent Scott Kizner attended an “emergency” meeting with school personnel to begin a “dialogue” about why the school division found itself short 28 bus drivers and what they were going to do to about it.

It’s not hard to understand what’s causing the shortage, not only in Stafford County, but throughout the commonwealth and the nation. “America’s fleet of school buses is more than twice the size of all other forms of mass transit combined, including bus, rail, and airline transportation,” a study by Bellwether Educational Partners pointed out.

But the ready supply of people to drive those buses is highly sensitive to economic conditions. According to School Bus Fleet, driver shortages were at their lowest level in a decade in 2009, at the peak of the Great Recession, when nationwide unemployment was hovering close to 10 percent.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate in September dropped another .02 points to 3.5 percent. “The last time the rate was this low was in December 1969,” almost 50 years ago, according to the BLS. And when school started, the unemployment rate in Virginia was even lower: just 2.8 percent, according to the Virginia Employment Commission, which means that 36,700 more Virginians were on a payroll in August this year than at the same time last year.

Furthermore, the August unemployment rate in the Fredericksburg region was also below the national average and in some cases below the state average: 2.5 percent in Culpeper County; 2.6 percent in King George and Louisa counties; 2.7 percent in Stafford County; 2.9 percent in Spotsylvania County; 3 percent in Orange County; 3.2 percent in Caroline County; and 3.3 percent in the City of Fredericksburg.

“They move on to other employment with the economy being as strong as it is,” explained Brian Kapf, president of the National School Transportation Association.

New school bus drivers in Virginia are required to obtain a commercial driver’s license with a passenger endorsement, spend 24 hours in classroom training and another 24 hours on the road with an instructor, pass a road test, and take first-aid and CPR training in addition to passing a background check. Despite having many of the same skills required of transit bus drivers and commercial truckers, they make on average $5 less per hour.

In addition to low pay, veteran bus drivers in Stafford reportedly cited lack of support from administrators and parents when student disciplinary issues arose, and high stress levels due to tight schedules and traffic congestion. Not surprisingly, nearly 80 percent of school divisions in the commonwealth have had trouble retaining experienced drivers and finding enough new ones to fill open positions.

And with students traveling longer distances to school these days, and fewer walking or biking to school (down from 49 percent in 1969 to 10 percent in 2017), it’s getting harder to transport students to school and back home again in a reasonable amount of time.

The shortage has gotten so bad that in some localities, such as Prince William County, teachers have even gotten behind the wheel themselves. This arrangement helps them out financially, since they are paid a starting bus driver’s wages in addition to their teaching salaries. Although driving a bus and teaching make for a very long day, it might be an attractive option for newly hired teachers, administrative staff, classroom aides or other employees who haven’t been on staff long enough to earn step increases.

Albemarle County is offering $15 an hour plus health and pension benefits, but is still having trouble finding enough part-time bus drivers to cover its routes. Other states have responded to the national school bus driver shortage by reducing service, charging fares or accepting advertising to help them raise wages. In Ohio, families can collect $250 per student annually for not using the school bus system.

Perhaps one or more of those solutions would work in Stafford. In the meantime, parents whose children ride the school bus shouldn’t plan on having any early weekday dinners.

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