There is nothing quite like the yellow school bus. It’s a beloved and iconic symbol of America’s public schools that’s been around for over 90 years. That’s why it’s sad that we so often neglect them. In this case, I don’t mean the buses themselves. They’re given a level of care befitting Air Force One. I mean that dedicated cadre of employees who drive them to and from school every day, rain or shine, and in the course of a year log tens of thousands of miles. Their safety record, particularly in Stafford, is impeccable. They’re attention to their charges unmatched, but sadly, until just a few days ago, we didn’t pay them particularly well. Nor were we paying much attention to their concerns about student behavior or the way the school system was treating them.
This was taking its toll. Recruitment and retention had reached crisis proportions. When the school year started, Stafford was short more than 20 school bus drivers. This created immediate problems. School bus drivers had to cover more than one route and this made buses and students late both in the morning and in the afternoon. Also, the county had a tough time fielding enough drivers for activity buses and the daily back and forth trips that go on between schools. It was a crisis that was only getting worse and unless something was done the problem was going to get worse.
Fortunately, this situation took a turn for the better last week when the Stafford County School Board raised the entry level school bus driver pay from $15.76 to $17.36. More experienced bus drivers, who were facing a compression gap in the salary scales, also got a substantial increase. According to School Board Chairman Patricia Healy, the raises are well deserved and long overdue. ”I am grateful that there have been sufficient savings in this year’s budget to permit the school board to make the raises effective immediately,” she said.
That was good news. But, let’s take a step back and consider all that’s involved in a school system’s transportation department. Stafford County has 262 buses. Some are new, some are middle aged and some will probably be retired before too long. That said, the county garage takes exceptionally good care of them. If a bus driver says something squeaks, clicks or seems sluggish, the mechanics work on it immediately. If a part is questionable, its replaced.
As for the drivers, their day can be a long one and it sometimes can be pretty tough duty. Drivers are usually up well before dawn, getting ready to take the high school routes, which is followed by the middle school routes and then the elementary school routes. That’s three runs in the morning and in the afternoon. During the day, they may shuttle kids between programs at different schools or go on field trips. They also drive students to games and tournaments. Also, don’t forget that driving a school bus isn’t like driving the family car. It's big, it's lumbering and it's purposefully underpowered. Also, Stafford is different than it was 20 years ago. We’ve got traffic — just like the rest of Northern Virginia — and handling a school bus in heavy traffic can be challenging.
Ok, it’s a tough day, but then they’re the kids and apparently this has become another major concern. Bus drivers have repeatedly told school administrative personnel that student behavior on the buses has gotten out of hand. Drivers have reported problems on the buses, but get the feeling, no one is following up. This has to stop. School Board Chairman Healy said it’s one of the school board’s top concerns. But, it’s not like it’s that hard to address. School administrators need to get involved. Discipline doesn’t stop on the school bus. We even have cameras on the buses, so when there is a problem, its documented and can be immediately addressed. The fact that many drivers feel they’re being ignored is inexcusable.
Ok, we raise the pay, and get a handle on school bus behavior. That’s good, but this is a vibrant economy, getting part-time or full-time jobs isn’t difficult. So, it’s still going to take some active recruiting to attract more drivers. Also, while having school breaks and summers off is attractive to some people, it’s not for others. So, in recruiting for school bus drivers, the school system needs to realize that they’re aiming at a small niche of the employment market.
This problem isn’t unique to Stafford, Fairfax and Prince William counties face a similar problem. However, there is something more fundamental here. We need to remember that we put a lot of trust in school bus drivers, we expect a great deal from them and we need to value them accordingly.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at email@example.com.