McDONOUGH — School bus drivers took to the podium during the Board of Education’s regular business meeting Monday to express their frustration over driver shortages, bus overcrowding and pay.
Driver Novia Cantero-Hernandez said the transportation department is “severely understaffed” and “not competitive” with pay in surrounding counties.
“We need help, and we’re just not getting it,” she said.
Others noted the lack of bus monitors and driving multiple routes, which leads to sometimes 50 or more students on the bus at one time.
“It isn’t easy battling traffic and road work all with our backs turned to 50 kids,” said Tara Hammett. “We’re not here to complain, but we need help.”
Murry Chambers, director of transportation, said there are currently 20-30 routes that are being driven by substitute drivers. He said several regular drivers have been out due to illness or other reasons and that there aren’t enough sub drivers to cover every route.
Cliff Shearouse, transportation executive director, said many of the issues drivers are experiencing are “residual effects” of the driver shortage.
“We don’t have subs to cover all the routes and the temporary fixes are causing a lot of the problems,” Shearouse said.
The fixes include drivers picking up additional routes or adding more students to drivers’ usual routes.
“That’s the reason buses are becoming crowded,” he said.
Additionally, the increase in students means longer periods of time spent on the buses for children and longer routes for drivers. He said that’s why some buses are arriving late to school in the mornings and home in the evenings.
According to Shearouse there are currently 300 driver positions with 292 filled. He said there are about 20 drivers who call in sick daily, on top of those who are already out, which adds to the current shortage.
Despite the challenges drivers have been faced with, Shearouse said they’re doing a great job.
“It’s a tough spot for them to be in, and I commend my team for their hard work,” he said. “They’re going above and beyond and picking up the extra work.”
He said as drivers begin to return, the load will lighten.
As for adding additional bus monitors, Chambers said the district is always hiring. He explained that all special education buses have monitors. Regular education transportation does not typically have a monitor unless one is requested by the driver or if there’s a problem on the bus.
Bus monitors work part time on an as-needed basis. He said if they’re available to work, they’ll be assigned to regular education routes as needed.
“It’s a very transitional work force, and they’re not always available when we need them,” Chambers said.
Henry County Schools bus drivers are guaranteed five hours of work per day. The starting salary is $15.45 hourly or $13,674 annually.
The district offers a $375 annual bonus for perfect attendance. Active employees can earn $250 for each new employee they refer when the new employee completes 90 days of full-time employment. New driver sign-on bonuses are also offered.
As compared to Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties, HCS offers the lowest pay for starting drivers.
Clayton County school bus drivers are guaranteed six hours of work per day at a starting rate of $16.92 per hour or $18,880.52 annually.
Fulton County also guarantees six hours daily. The starting per-hour rate is $20, or $21,840 annually. DeKalb County drivers are guaranteed six hours a day starting at $16.43 per hour or $17,744.40 per year.
As with most school districts in the state, Henry County Schools is always looking for qualified drivers and monitors.
All new drivers start out as substitute drivers until a minimum evaluation period is met. Once the evaluation requirement is fulfilled, sub drivers are recommended for full-time benefited positions when available. The daily pay rate for a substitute is $55.25 for five hours of work.
Drivers are required to hold a current Commercial Drivers License with Passenger and School Bus endorsements. The district offers CDL training; however, drivers must pass the written test and obtain a bus permit before training can be completed. Shearouse said it can take seven to eight weeks to obtain a CDL.
He noted that once drivers become full-time employees, they’re eligible for the district’s benefits package. Additionally, drivers can pick up more hours weekly with mid-day opportunities and field trips.
Shearouse said he’s in touch with drivers and that their “concerns are being discussed.”
“We’re low on drivers right now, but it will start getting better as regular drivers return to their routes,” he said. “It’s tougher on (our drivers) all around right now and I appreciate all the hard work they’re putting in.”
To apply to become an HCS bus driver or bus monitor, visit www.henry.k12.ga.us. Hover over the Careers tab and select Human Resources. Once there, click on the view current vacancies and complete on online application link.