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Three weeks before school starts, Charlottesville only has a third of the bus drivers it needs
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Three weeks before school starts, Charlottesville only has a third of the bus drivers it needs

Charlottesville school bus

Right now, the Charlottesville school division only has nine drivers, but it needs 30 to be able to transport students to and from school.

With about three weeks left before Charlottesville students go back to the classroom, the city only has a third of the school bus drivers it needs, as a recently approved $2,400 bonus for current and new drivers aimed at addressing the perennial shortage is getting off the ground.

As the city transportation department works to recruit drivers, the school system is preparing for a potential repeat of the spring, when only some groups of students could ride the bus, and officials expect the situation to be more difficult this fall as students will be attending classes five days a week.

The school year begins Aug. 25, and city staffers have begun developing bus routes.

As part of the school system’s current plans, bus seats could be limited to preschoolers, students with special needs and those who don’t have any other way to get to school. That’s nearly 1,000 students out of the division's more than 4,000 students. With the current nine drivers alone, the city might not be able to transport the entire group.

Thirty drivers are needed but the city could get by with 14, City Manager Chip Boyles told city councilors in early July. That would entail using people currently driving Charlottesville Area Transit buses, though. In previous years, the city has used as many as 10 CAT drivers to help get students to school.

The bus driver shortage has been an issue for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem, which has been felt across Virginia and the country. Other school systems are prioritizing ridership, delaying start times and offering hiring bonuses in response. Last month, the Henrico County school system let interested drivers get behind the wheel of a bus as part of a hiring event.

The city is planning to hold a series of similar recruitment events this month. Those interested can test drive a school bus bus from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday and Aug. 21 at Charlottesville High School, said Garland Williams, director of CAT. All that’s required is a valid driver’s license. For more information about the job postings, visit tinyurl.com/schoolbustransit.

Capacity on the buses is greater than it was in the spring, when only one student, except those in the same household, could occupy a seat. This year, it’s up to two students per seat.

Not being able to offer transportation to most students is a “big setback” and means less flexibility for families, said Kim Powell, the division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

“We fill the buses up with what we do know is needed,” Powell said. “And then what scares me or hurts me is that child that you didn’t know about. We filled the buses with the drivers that we do have available at the time, and then we have to work waitlists.”

Working the waitlist entails reaching out to community groups for assistance and relying on school staff members to go above and beyond, potentially having them drive students to and from school, she said.

“It’s gut-wrenching for us,” Powell said. “That’s the stuff we’re bracing for.”

The city School Board will hear more about transportation for the coming school year at its meeting Thursday.

Powell said the school division and the city need to work quickly and do everything they can to address the issue.

“There’s no easy button we can push,” she said, noting that the bonus and other efforts were promising. “But none of that can happen fast enough to solve our problems and to give us the relief we need for when school starts.”

Bonus or raise

The latest tool in the city’s effort to recruit and retain bus drivers is the $2,400 bonus paid out in three installments over the course of the school year. Part of the $332,952, two-year pilot goes toward providing full-time health insurance for employees who are part time.

The City Council approved the bonus plan July 19. The plan is covered by the school division’s federal stimulus funds. Charlottesville Area Transit drivers are receiving a similar bonus. Last week, job postings for drivers were updated to mention the signing bonus, and marketing materials such as print and radio ads started to run.

The school division pays the city about $2.8 million to transport its students — an arrangement that started in 1986, but city staffers want to explore transferring that task back to the school system or a combined system with Albemarle County Public Schools, according to a letter from Boyles to the city School Board.

Under the contract, the city government is in charge of compensation for drivers, meaning that the School Board can’t unilaterally pay people more or make other changes.

The bonus plan was developed over the course of 37 days and several meetings among city staff after the School Board sought to give drivers a raise, according to emails obtained by The Daily Progress.

The board proposed a $660,804 plan to make pupil driver compensation more competitive and to put 14 pupil-driving positions on full-time benefits, according to the May 24 letter, and wanted to see something done before July 1.

School Board Chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres followed up with another letter June 25, urging action.

At one point in May, the city was considering a $1.50 an hour raise, according to the emails. However, the city pursued the bonus plan, in part, to ensure parity between CAT drivers and school bus drivers. Additionally, Boyles said the starting hourly wage range of $16.97 to $18.78 was competitive.

In her first letter, Larson-Torres noted that parity between CAT and pupil drivers has been an issue in past discussions, but she said the school bus driver position posed further challenges, from an additional endorsement requirement to the responsibilities involved with transporting children.

“If we do not take action to get ahead of this pupil driver shortage concern, we will face a major equity issue in our community if we cannot transport all students who need transportation in order to most effectively access their education,” she wrote.

Other options?

Currently, there is no commitment for any CAT drivers to drive school buses, but the school division said using such drivers could be an immediate solution to provide temporary relief.

Williams, of CAT, said he can’t force drivers with the necessary license endorsement to make that switch. Still, he’s working to entice drivers to move over to the school bus side for the next six months.

“Because we’re all in this together and we want to make sure that we have safe, reliable transportation to get our kids to school in a reasonable time and safe manner,” he said.

A commercial driver’s license with an S endorsement is required to become a bus driver. Free training is provided to those without a CDL, but that training and licensure process takes several weeks.

Williams said the number of students determines how many drivers are needed, and that officials are still having conversations about what the bus ridership numbers look like. The school division’s contract calls for about 30 drivers.

Williams said it’s a balancing act to meet the needs of the CAT bus system and pupil transit. He said his department has a responsibility to the community with the public CAT buses that help people to get to work, school or medical appointments.

“So they’re depending on public to run, so we can’t just sacrifice one,” he said.

City schools spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said CAT bus drivers would help get the school year under way, and then whoever is recruited in the coming months could replace those drivers.

In the 2019-20 school year, 2,742 K-12 students rode the bus. Last school year, 653 students were riding the bus when in-person classes resumed in March. The waitlist of about 142 students was cleared by the end of the first month.

Typically, the division doesn’t transport elementary students who live less than a third of a mile from their school, Walker and Buford students who live within a half-mile and high school students who live within 0.7 miles. Many other localities cut off bus service within a one-mile radius, according to a School Board presentation.

For families walking or biking to school, maps and routes for each school have been developed.

Division officials said they plan to support schools in setting up walking and carpool groups and work with other community partners. Several organizations provided their own buses and drivers to get students to school last spring.

Powell said she reached out to community partners to share news about the bonus and to see if they knew anyone interested.

The division and city also are talking about ways to set up a system for school employees to drive buses. Powell said they would be limited to when they could drive and to what school.

But to do that, Powell said they need to determine an overtime rate and a way to monitor the hours of employees who drive the bus because they would be employees of the school system and city.

“We can figure it out,” she said. “We have to agree on a way to do it and handle those hours.”

Powell raised the idea with city staff in mid-June, according to the emails.

Williams said that possibility is being discussed.

“Are conversations happening? Yes. Are we at a point where we can say that we have it worked out? No,” he said. “But I’m committed to continue to work until we figure it out regardless of whatever it is to make this model work.”

As part of the bonus plan, $60,000 is going toward marketing, which includes print, radio and TV ads. Typically, the city has a $5,000 advertising budget for school bus drivers, according to a September presentation to the School Board.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can,” Williams said. “We’re stepping up our advertising. That’s going to be slow coming, we understand that, but it has to be a sustained effort.”

Williams said they’ll continue to hire until they reach 30 drivers.

“I’m having conversations with the city manager and deputy city manager of operations and we’re committed to making sure we do everything we possibly can to facilitate having enough drivers by the time school starts,” he said.

Powell said addressing the driver shortage and getting more children on the buses will take a community effort, echoing past comments from school officials.

“The schools, by ourselves, we can’t solve it,” she said. “We’re depending on the city. We’re depending on, most likely CAT, in particular, to help us until other efforts can bear fruit.”

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