GREENSBORO — Facing dozens of unfilled bus routes, Guilford County Schools has turned to trying to recruit its teachers and part-time staff to fill those routes for extra pay.
A shortage of bus drivers forced the district to double up on some routes and led to some students getting to school late or waiting longer for a bus ride home, schools administrators said.
The district is trying this new tactic for the first time this year because of ongoing problems finding enough bus drivers to serve all the students. As of last month, Guilford County Schools still needed drivers for 38 of its 551 routes.
The district faced a similar situation last fall, according to Chief Financial Officer Angie Henry and Chief Human Resources Officer Shirley Morrison.
Low unemployment is contributing to a nationwide school bus driver shortage issue, they said. Both said the past couple of years or so have been the worst bus driver shortage they’ve seen in their time working in the district.
District leaders also have talked about a pay raise for bus drivers in the hopes of attracting more people, but it’s unclear when or if that will happen.
Guilford County Board of Education members passed a budget this spring that included what they hoped would be $1 million in extra pay for bus drivers along with $2 million to increase local salary supplements for teachers.
County commissioners, however, gave the district less than half of the $10 million increase school officials sought for this academic year. That means it’s unlikely the schools budget will include either the local teacher supplement or bus driver pay increases, Henry said. School board leaders still haven’t voted on a final version of the district’s budget because legislators haven’t approved the state budget yet.
Henry said teachers and staff could earn up to $10,000 more per year driving either an afternoon or morning bus route.
She and Morrison cited several reasons why targeting their own employees makes sense for the school district:
Some coaches and other school employees drive activity buses, so they already have the commercial driver’s license required by the state to operate a school bus. To get the license, prospective drivers have to take and pass a three-day class and do three days of on-the-road instruction. Getting people scheduled and through the class is one of the barriers that makes it harder to find drivers, Morrison and Henry said.
School employees are basically a captive audience for the pitch, which district leaders sent out around the beginning of the school year.
They already know the employees, and with teachers, know they’ve learned useful skills that can come in handy managing children on a bus.
“I don’t have to search for you, you are right here, you are already part of the family,” Morrison said of employees.
By mid-September, about 80 teachers had expressed interest in participating, including about nine who had the required license, Henry and Morrison said. The transportation department had already placed some of them on routes, they said.
Western Guilford Middle School band teacher Justin Thomas was one of those who took a class in September in Greensboro to earn a license to drive a school bus. Thomas, who is also a school track coach, wanted to be able to drive the activity bus as part of his coaching duties. He chose not to pick up a school bus route after hearing about the opportunity and thinking about it.
Thomas said the recruitment effort has been a topic of conversation among teachers since the beginning of the school year. He’s heard interest, but also concerns, like, “How will I be back in enough time to teach? Am I adding extra stress for extra money?”
Personally, he said, he also worries that teachers who take it on, especially coaches, may wear themselves out. During sports season, he said, a coach often gets home from meets at 9 o’clock at night. How, he wondered, would they then cope with adding extra hours in the morning before school starts?
It’s concerning, he said, that the bus driver shortage has gotten to the point the schools are trying to recruit teachers for it.
“We’ve got to do more to make sure we are supporting our bus drivers and support personnel,” he said.