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North Carolina’s school bus driver shortage is real — despite new pay raises

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  • Bus driver shortages around the state have a surprising cause: higher pay for beginning drivers could make the job less attractive for some long-term employees. #nced
  • “The bus driver shortage in North Carolina is real and challenging and in almost every district statewide," said @KatJoyce66 of @NCASAtweets. Find out what's happening. #nced
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Early this school year, Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools Superintendent Keith Parker found himself leading the district from a different kind of office.

Short a bus driver, he stepped behind the steering wheel and took a route, all so he could make sure the district’s children got to school on time.

“We are trying to fill the gap because if we don’t have a driver and somebody calls out, then one of our drivers has to do triple routes,” he said. “And that means some kids are not gonna get to school until 9:30 a.m. and 10 o’clock … You know, we can’t accept that when we’re a low-performing district with kids that’ve got to learn.”

The shortage of teachers in districts around the state and country has captured the attention of many this year, but less discussed is the need for bus drivers.

Katherine Joyce, executive director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators (NCASA), is hearing from districts around the state about the issue. While it’s hard to get a handle on hard numbers, she said that concerns are coming in to her office.

“The bus driver shortage in North Carolina is real and challenging and in almost every district statewide,” she said.

And one of the reasons why may be surprising to some.

In the most recent budget passed by the legislature, lawmakers made a move that many applauded: They raised the minimum wage for non-certified school personnel — such as bus drivers — to $15 an hour.

Joyce said that was a “helpful and much needed increase.” Unfortunately, it may also be contributing to the current bus driver shortage.

“We are seeing … what many would consider some unintended consequences and additional problems even from those helpful investments,” she said.

Here’s the situation: Say you are a brand new bus driver. You come into a district and are getting paid $15 an hour. What about all the bus drivers who came before you? According to Joyce, veteran drivers may not have even reached $15 an hour yet. Or maybe they’re just barely above that pay after being on the job for 10 years or more. That means that someone many years their junior in experience could be making the same or just a little less than they are.

“It really creates a morale issue for veteran employees,” she said.

And that’s before getting into the fact that $15 an hour isn’t really a competitive wage in a modern marketplace, according to Joyce. Fast food restaurants, big box stores, and other private sector jobs may offer better starting salaries, luring school district bus drivers away.

According to Brian McClung, transportation director at Rutherford County Schools, the competition for employees is also happening within districts.

It used to be that there were different pay levels between non-certified staff such as custodians, teacher assistants, and bus drivers. But the minimum wage increase essentially levels the financial playing field for all those employees. At that point, it’s all about which job is more appealing.

“When they bumped everybody to $15, what would make somebody get on a bus with 50 to 70 kids?” McClung asked.

Not to mention the fact that becoming a bus driver also means having to get a special license to do your job.

McClung said that COVID-19 really contributed to the problem, and not just in North Carolina but across the country. Many bus drivers in his district were retirees, and they left when COVID hit and didn’t come back. One way Rutherford County Schools deals with these issues is to require teacher assistants to get a bus driver’s license and be willing to pick up routes if necessary.

Marlon Watson, transportation director for Johnston County Public Schools, said his district has about 253 buses and they are about 20 bus drivers short. They also have dual-employment employees, meaning that staff such as teacher assistants, custodians, and school nutrition workers are expected to pick up bus routes as needed.

He said the shortages being faced by districts aren’t limited to bus drivers.

“It also impacts … our ability to recruit and retain good mechanics as well,” he said. “So I think the salary is definitely an issue. But it’s an issue for multiple positions.” 

Both he and McClung said lawmakers need to think about raising the minimum wage higher. McClung pointed out that bus drivers often only work four hours a day. While $15 an hour might look good at 40 hours a week. It starts to look different at 20 hours.

“$15 an hour, four hours a day, isn’t livable anymore,” he said.

Kevin Harrison, section chief of transportation services at the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), said that bus driver shortages are a perennial problem.

Jimmy Boone, bus driver in Gates County, delivers learning packets. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Back in 2018, DPI reported to the General Assembly on issues of school transportation, and Harrison said the problems back then are the same problems that districts are having today. In fact, he said the issue of bus driver shortages go back decades.

“It’s a problem with all of these hourly paid employees,” he said.

COVID-19, of course, exacerbated the issue, but Harrison said it seems like things are “somewhat better this year.” He doesn’t know for sure because DPI doesn’t get centralized reports from districts on their transportation issues. DPI’s role in school transportation is mostly limited to assisting on matters of law and policy.

“It probably varies from year to year, depending on the situation,” he said. “Ironically, perhaps, when the economy is good, it’s harder to find drivers.” 

Joyce said NCASA is hearing from districts about all sorts of different ways they’re trying to battle the problem. Some districts are trying signing bonuses. Others are having staff pick up routes, as already mentioned.

She’s also hearing that some district transportation directors are looking at administrative changes that could help — for instance, getting training manuals printed in Spanish so that Spanish-speaking workers might come forward.

She said her organization is trying to think through how best to advocate for solutions that could address the issue. One possibility is asking lawmakers to raise the minimum wage like McClung and Watson mentioned. But while that helps with private sector competition, it doesn’t address the disparity between new employees and more experienced drivers.

“The concern would be if the state just raises the level and there’s no support for making sure the veteran employees are covered appropriately,” she said.

Meanwhile, districts like Elizabeth City-Pasquotank continue to try to deal with the problem on the ground.

Parker said he was hesitant for people to know that he had filled in as a substitute bus driver. But after the news got out, it actually served as a recruitment tool, attracting some drivers to the district. And he’s also gone to some staffers in the district — those with the proper license — and asked them to consider picking up shifts. The fact that he has already done it makes them more likely to follow suit, he thinks. And, of course, he is still willing to step in when he can.

“I’m not asking anybody to do anything that I’m not already doing,” he said. “And I’ve said to transportation that — you know, obviously I can’t drive a bus every day — but if we have a driver call out and I can, I’ll drive.”

EdNC Policy Analyst Katie Dukes contributed reporting to this story.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.