School bus (copy)

Help wanted: Successful applicants must be reliable, level-headed, patient and licensed and trained to maneuver a 30,000-pound vehicle packed with not always perfectly behaved young people.

As of September, the Guilford County school system still lacked school bus drivers for 38 of its 551 routes. The shortage has escalated to the point that teachers and other employees are being asked to take on bus routes.

The problem isn’t unique to Guilford County. In July, the school board in Moore County enacted a new policy that requires all support staff, custodians, cafeteria assistants and teacher assistants to obtain school bus licenses and to be available to drive routes. The Chapel Hill Carrboro school system has dangled $1,000 bonuses and sent mass emails to parents in an attempt to recruit new drivers. Wake County sponsored a school bus driver job fair last spring and spent $100,000 in marketing in 2018.

As the News & Record’s Jessie Pounds reported Oct. 5, one contributing factor to the shortage is the low unemployment rate. Fewer people are looking for work and are thus in position to opt for jobs that pay more or offer better hours.

But there was a smaller pool from which to hire even before the economy improved. In 1988 the federal Labor Department outlawed using drivers younger than 18 in the last two states that still did so: North and South Carolina.

Another issue is money — or more specifically, not enough of it. Guilford County Schools received less than half of the

$10 million funding increase it requested this academic year from the county commissioners that would have included pay raises for bus drivers and supplemental pay for teachers.

The good news is that 80 teachers had expressed interest in covering routes as of mid-September. Some already have started.

This provides some built-in advantages: Teachers are familiar with students and experienced in dealing with them. Some also already are accustomed to driving activity buses and are licensed to do so. What’s more, some teachers work second jobs anyway to make ends meet. The extra pay for teachers and staff driving either a morning or afternoon route could come to as much as $10,000 a year.

But deploying teachers behind the wheels of school buses could lead to diminishing returns.

Teachers already face considerable demands on their time and energy. They already have responsibilities outside of the classroom. And many already routinely plan classes and grade papers at home, after hours and on weekends.

Then there are the inherent demands of a school bus route, which may be no walk in the park. In September, two youths, one armed with a gun, boarded a Charlotte Mecklenburg school bus and fought a 17-year-old passenger.

So there will be no quick fixes. And even a shorthanded picker will need to be choosy.

Applicants must complete a three-day Department of Motor Vehicles commercial drivers class, and pass written and driving tests. A permit costs $68. A three-year license will run you $84.

Using teachers as drivers should be a short-term solution only. The commissioners and the school board need to address this problem urgently and seriously. Ideally, teachers should teach and drivers should drive.

Students are precious cargo and their daily trips to school shouldn’t have to be a rubber-bands-and-paper-clips proposition.

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