Stanly County Schools faces bus driver shortage heading into new year

With the new school year only a few weeks away, Stanly County Schools is experiencing a bus driver shortage that could seriously impact students’ ability to get to school on time.

SCS Director of Maintenance Todd Bowers, in a presentation before the school board last week, said that if school started last Friday, the district would have eight buses without any qualified individuals to drive them.

“Transportation this year is going to be a challenge,” Bowers told the board. “I’m not going to lie to you.”

There are about 15 percent of buses across the district that do not have a permanent driver assigned to them. This includes nine bus driver positions and two bus monitors. By comparison, the district had five bus driver vacancies at the start of last school year.

In order to operate a school bus in North Carolina, an individual must be at least 18, have at least six months of driving experience, have a School Bus Driver’s Certificate and hold a commercial driver license with both “S” (school bus) and “P” (passenger) endorsements. The process includes completing the required three-day school bus driver training class.

Bowers told the board that at least 20 people were signed up for a training at Albemarle High this week, including 10 who have expressed interest in wanting a regular route. But even if those interested were to successfully pass the class and obtain their commercial driver’s license, it likely wouldn’t be until October, Bowers said.

Teacher assistants employed through the school system are required to obtain their CDL, but Bowers told the board that most teacher assistants now come through ESS, a national K-12 staffing organization, where they are not required to get the license.

“Schools now have hardly any T.A.s that can drive a bus,” he said. “So when we call a school and say we need a bus driver, some of them may not have but one and some may have none that have a bus license. So we don’t have anybody to pull from.”

The need for drivers is so great that Mike Lambert, the district’s transportation director, has spent time driving and will likely help out this year, Bowers said.

The shortage has been a problem for several years but has intensified since the Covid pandemic. Many local bus drivers last year contracted the coronavirus and one driver died.

To try and make up for the vacancies, Stanly’s buses will continue to operate double runs, in which drivers have to build in extra time to pick up and drop off two groups of students at each school.

“I’m used to it, it doesn’t really bother me,” said Kimberly Carpenter, who’s set to begin her 25th year as a bus driver, about the double runs, which first began when the district switched to staggered start times a few years ago. “It’s just a little bit more time behind the wheel,” which she said she doesn’t mind as a full-time driver.

The starting pay for bus drivers in Stanly County will be $15 an hour, an increase from the $13.07 it had been for many years, though still lower than many other districts. Drivers with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for instance, make $17.75 an hour, while the starting pay for drivers with Union County Schools is $16.75. This has led some drivers, thinking about working in Stanly, to go elsewhere.

Drivers with many years of experience don’t receive pay increases in Stanly, which has led some to leave for what they see as better opportunities in neighboring districts.

The school system has advertised about the need for more drivers, including at local job fairs, but it can be difficult to find qualified individuals since many of the positions are part-time, often amounting to only about three hours of work each day. Bowers said about 40 percent of drivers are full-time.

“You’re asking them to drive, at $4 gallon of gas, to the school in the morning, drive back home, drive back to the school in the afternoon, drive back home and then get paid three hours,” Bowers said.

Bowers also mentioned the school district’s Transportation Information Management System (TIMS) coordinator, who oversees the bus routes, recently retired. While routes don’t usually change much from year to year, the vacancy could impact the school system’s ability to have an accurate account of the number of students that ride each bus.

Carpenter, who will be transporting students to and from Norwood and Aquadale elementary schools, believes this year will be similar to last, when there was still a scarcity of drivers at times, but the school district still managed to have enough drivers to complete the routes. Her mindset will certainly not change.

“We do get up every morning and we get on that bus and we try and take care of, not only ourselves, but those kids as well,” she said. “And, good Lord willing, it works out so that we do our jobs the way we’re supposed to and we get those kids to school or home safely.”