A bus failed to pick up Kimberly Harding’s granddaughter, a fifth grader at Fairview Elementary, for the first three days of school.
Harding took her daughters on a trip to California in August, leaving the child’s stepfather to get her on the bus. Like many parents, he needed to leave for work prior to bus pickup. As a result, when the family received word from their child that the bus never arrived, they could only instruct her to go back inside the house alone and lock the door.
“I’m thinking to myself ‘What if my granddaughter was standing at the bus stop, waiting and waiting and waiting for the bus and somebody just snatched her up,’” Harding said.
Harding, a former MCCSC extended day program staff member, used to arrive to school early to supervise children with parents who had to leave early for work.
“Parents have to work, they have to go to work, so they rely on the school system to make sure their children are safe, Harding said. “That’s what we pay our taxes for.”
After a rough start to the school year left some students without reliable transportation, the Monroe County Community School Corp. board approved a new monetary incentive program to combat the bus driver shortage during its meeting Tuesday.
The program aims to reward and retain qualified existing drivers, while also attracting new drivers to cover the five routes left uncovered at the start of the school year. All bus routes are currently in service, but MCCSC Director of Finance and Logistics Adam Terwilliger said it required an all-hands-on-deck effort that left office staff with commercial driver's licenses responsible for driving buses.
MCCSC offers drivers a beginning hourly rate of $20.25, as well as full benefits. Terwilliger says drivers can expect approximately a $1 per hour raise in both fall and spring.
“We will be looking at rates competitive with the highest in the state, along with being a district that offers benefits, which is uncommon for a position considered to be under eight hours,” Terwilliger said. “We are very fortunate to be well-positioned and equipped to try to fight these driver shortages.”
The district's solution includes both cash stipends and an aggressive marketing campaign complete with radio advertisements. The school board voted in favor of offering a $1,000 sign-on bonus for new CDL drivers. Additionally, any non-administration MCCSC employee can receive a $1,000 referral bonus for referring a CDL driver. Aspiring drivers lacking CDL credentials can receive training through MCCSC and qualify for the stipend upon certification.
Benefits do not only apply to new drivers. All active drivers hired by MCCSC prior to Aug. 10 received a $1,000 stipend of their own. Retired drivers are encouraged to resume their position behind the wheel, as non-active MCCSC drivers who re-activate prior to Sept. 1 will receive the stipend on the condition they remain active through the entire school year.
“There’s a nationwide shortage, so we’re going to continue to battle this for years to come,” MCCSC Director of Transportation Scott Waddell said. “It’s just a matter of having a strong recruiting and training process, and having good pay and good benefits — which, we’re already there.”
Beyond recruiting drivers, MCCSC aims to improve families’ transportation experiences with the myStop app. The app, new to the district this year, provides real time updates on bus locations.
“There’s just so many things that can happen in transportation where a bus can be delayed,” Waddell said. “We just want to have the ability to communicate to those families that there is one coming but it’s going to be late. If you’re standing out there waiting for a bus, it’s nice to know an update on what’s happening.”
These efforts come in response to the first few weeks of school, when some students experienced 45-minute bus delays and others realized they were not routed for a bus at all.
Waddell said transportation issues can be expected at the start of any year due to last minute enrollment changes, but the bus driver shortage and software malfunctions exacerbated those issues this year. The myStop app only added to the initial chaos when it failed to sync GPS data correctly during the first week.
Jason Hillenburg experienced a different transportation issue when his two daughters were not assigned a bus route. Considering the girls have attended Templeton Elementary for four years without an address change, Hillenburg felt confused. Confusion turned to impatience as two weeks passed with Hillenburg carving time out of his work day to drive his daughters to and from school.
Eventually, Hillenburg emailed Terwilliger, who resolved the problem in a few days. Terwilliger said this particular problem of not receiving a route impacted only a small subset of MCCSC students. A technical issue listed approximately 900 students’ start date and end date as the same, leading routing software to believe those students no longer attended MCCSC. Within that group of 900 students, Terwilliger said a minority relied on MCCSC for transportation. Hillenburg said he understands technical difficulties arise, but the lack of proactivity in solving his family’s problem reveals an underlying accountability issue.
“I don’t want to sound like one of these typical impatient parents that I read in paper all the time, that I see on Facebook — I’m not,” Hillenburg said. “But at some point there has to be some accountability and it needs to be internal accountability within the corporation itself, rather than just people telling me and people like me that accountability is at the voting booth, hold them accountable that way. That’s great and that is a way of holding the school corporation accountable, but there needs to be other ways.”
Regarding the driver shortage, Hillenburg said staffing issues impact every area of life currently but getting children to school remains crucial.
“With staffing issues across the board in this country right now, every part of American society is having to learn to do more with less at the moment,” Hillenburg said. “I hate to say that to anybody, but the school corporation is part of that too. It’s unfortunate but it’s reality.”
Hillenburg said he empathizes with MCCSC’s difficult task of transporting thousands of children while short staffed, but children’s safety and education should not be compromised as a result.
“There are plenty of instances in your life and in my life where we should not have to answer for the failure of others, but especially children in no way shape or form should have to deal with this.”