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The challenge to recruit and retain public school bus drivers remains at a critical level, and it’s having a ripple effect on student education. Meanwhile, a shortage of bus mechanics is only aggravating the problem.
Randy Yohe spoke with West Virginia School Service Personnel Association Executive Director Joe White about the urgent need to find a solution, including legislative remedies, enacted or dismissed, to fix the problem.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Yohe: We’ve heard for a while now from the West Virginia Department of Education transportation folks that there continues to be a critical need and shortage of school bus drivers. How critical is it?
White: It’s very critical. I’ve just completed a quick text message sent to a few of our leaders. With about five or six counties, we were probably 50 drivers short of making all routes every day, and that was just a handful of counties. It gets worse as you go into all 55 counties with our students paying the price. In some instances, they’re unable to be picked up. The parents either had to take them or they were excused for the day. A lot of our bus drivers are doubling up or tripling up runs, making extra trips or getting as many students on the bus as they possibly can. So that’s what we’re faced with.
Yohe: Does that get you concerned about safety?
White: It does concern me with safety, and I’m sure it concerns them as well. I have to say this, in the state of West Virginia, we have a top-notch transportation department. I’ll put these guys and girls up against any state because they’re very well trained. Still, we always have some concerns about safety – if a bus is crowded or they have to be concerned with the number of trips they’re making and doubling and tripling up. In most of our counties, our drivers can’t even take a day off to go to their doctor’s appointment because they don’t have anybody to replace them.
Yohe: I’ve heard you make the statement that substitute bus drivers are a thing of the past. Why is that?
White: The majority of the reasons why is the pay. Compared to the salaries with our surrounding areas, we’re lower than all of our surrounding states. We’re about 26th in the nation with pay. It’s so much easier now with the way things are that they have their CDL license so that they can get jobs driving KRT buses, they can go drive water trucks, they can drive fuel trucks and they get paid more. There’s a lot of responsibility on drivers. Our drivers have to take training if there’s medication involved for a student. And all of the staff development hours are required over and above the 18 hours required by state code. In some instances, it’s easier just to get a job somewhere else.
Yohe: The recently passed House Bill 2346 lifts the 140 Day maximum limit for bus driver retirees who have returned to work. Does that make a difference? Or will it?
White: It will make a difference. I think the number that was thrown out we had about 141 retirees currently working that the bill would affect.
Yohe: I understand there’s a critical shortage of school bus mechanics and technicians. How severe is that?
White: It is very severe. In most counties where we have this issue our mechanics are driving every day. Think about that our mechanics are having to stop what they’re doing, and drive the buses, because there’s not enough bus operators. Number one, our counties really don’t hire enough mechanics to start with to keep the fleets going. Number two, some of our mechanics drive every day. Because of the shortage, we have maintenance guys that have been drivers that still hold certification. It is an issue. This somehow has to be addressed.
Yohe: That becomes a ripple effect, doesn’t it? If you’ve got mechanics, driving buses and other workers working as mechanics, you’re going to have some shortfalls?
White: Absolutely, you’re absolutely correct. And it’s not just the drivers, it’s not just the mechanics. They can leave – mechanics, technicians, they can go just about anywhere, and get paid more money with the expertise that they have. So it falls down to this, if we want to make education a centerpiece, as they say, then we need to encompass all of it and take care of all of the issues. People are not lined up to work, to get jobs in the school system. They stay away from them, even the teachers, everybody. It’s just there’s a shortage in just about every field.
Yohe: If there’s not something done to get these pay rates to some kind of regional equal compensation, what other effects may this personnel shortage have on West Virginia education?
White: It’s going to have a drastic effect on education in general, and on the state of West Virginia. We have to take care of those that serve in the education industry. It will just be a ripple effect if it’s not addressed and taken care of, and that includes the benefits as well. You’ve got to understand that over the years benefits have slowly eroded away. The pay is not equal to where it should be. There was a bill that was introduced from the House Education Committee that would have drastically raised service personnel salaries and would have put them comparative to surrounding states. Not only do we think that would have brought more people, I think it would have brought folks that have left the system to come back. You’ve got to understand that most of the majority of the service personnel in this state qualify for federal assistance because of the pain. The average service personnel salary right now in the state of West Virginia, according to the department of education, is $31,000 a year. These hard-working folks have to raise and feed their families. Our government has to be serious about this.