Delaware’s shortage of school bus drivers has finally left the Indian River School District feeling stranded.
Until now, the IRSD has hired bus contractors to transport thousands children to school, athletic activities and field trips. But with the contractors unable to find enough drivers to fill the demand, the IRSD has finally bent to the pressure and will hire 11 drivers and buy nine buses by autumn.
Although the Delaware Department of Education will cover most of the costs, the IRSD now has to deal with maintenance and management of a small bus fleet.
Neither IRSD officials nor the State want schools getting into the bus business. But the IRSD needs flexibility and a safety net so sports games are no longer canceled or postponed due to driver cancelations, and so children don’t arrive 45 minutes late to school or home.
“I think we have no other choice at this point, because we’re going to be expecting too many drivers to come in that history tells you we’re not going to get,” said Tyler Bryan, IRSD transportation systems analyst. “We can’t … guarantee we have enough drivers for September. That’s the big issue.”
Bryan has been bailing water to keep this metaphorical boat afloat, even substituting as a bus driver and driving the students himself. Contractors have also helped each other as much as possible.
But no one has offered a better solution to the problem, from which multiple school districts are suffering.
“We cannot go through another year like we had this year,” Bryan said. “It was down to the wire many days that I did not know if we were going to get our kids to school, or even home. It was many Hail Marys. … It took a lot of intricate moves to keep it going, and all I see is that gap growing.”
Public school districts must provide students with transportation.
IRSD began scrambling in 2018 and has never caught up. The deluge began in late summer as drivers have continued to quit, retire or take medical leave. Bus contractors are, with disappointment, turning back in routes that they cannot fulfill, despite trying to entice drivers with the flexible schedule and meaningfulness of working with children.
“They don’t have drivers to cover it, so they have to turn in routes,” said Bryan.
Moreover, the IRSD actually needs an additional route because the attendance of autistic students increased, especially around Long Neck and Oak Orchard. And enrollment is rapidly growing, which could require even more routes in the future.
The IRSD mitigated the problem in past years by consolidating routes and even changing school start times so buses could make multiple routes. But those tricks can’t plug the gaps anymore. Even when the IRSD helped to train new drivers last fall, only three people obtained their actual license of the 14 who completed the driving class.
The new plan
On June 12, the IRSD Board of Education agreed to hire 11 full-time employees. They will be cross-trained, to improve staff retention. Most of the new hires will serve dual roles, as bus drivers and custodians or paraprofessionals. They’ll drive the morning and afternoon routes, then work at the school for the rest of their 40 hours each week.
The Howard T. Ennis School will get two full-time drivers, since the special-needs school requires more time. Finally, one lead bus driver will be a certified to train new employees or substitute-drive any route.
By hiring drivers who also perform custodial or educational duties, IRSD officials hope to avoid dipping into the same pool of candidates that the existing bus contractors use.
The IRSD buses would not drive any route, game or field trip unless the contractors had been exhausted first, as per their bidding contracts.
The IRSD will also own nine school buses to perform the nine routes they’ve lost. This month, the Department of Education agreed to purchase six more buses for the district (but the IRSD must buy the buses and be reimbursed later, since the DOE’s budget isn’t approved until July 1). That’s on top of the three buses that the IRSD decided to buy last autumn, when the school board first saw the problem coming down the road. Those three original buses will arrive this summer.
The IRSD needs the three buses immediately, since summer-school begins on June 26. One bus is ready for purchase on a nearby lot. The next two are being purchased as used, and they’ll be kept as backups after the DOE buys the district new vehicles later this summer.
Costs to contractors
Most of the cost should be covered by the Department of Education, which will buy the buses and pay 90 percent of salaries, just as they would if the IRSD was hiring a contractor instead. The exact cost hasn’t been completely finalized, because there will be tweaking, due to unknowns, especially in gas or maintenance costs.
“Long term, wouldn’t it be cheaper to increase what district pays to contractors? Once we hire these guys, they’re our employees,” said Board Member W. Scott Collins.
But other districts have faced roadblocks when trying to supplement bus driver payments, Bryan said, possibly because additional pay would require a second payment contract beyond what the State requires.
Because the IRSD can’t pay more, Bryan emphasized the importance of supporting drivers in other ways. For example, they need to feel more appreciated, he said. Also, current IRSD policy requires them to telephone parents regarding discipline problems, which can lead to drivers being confronted by angry parents on their personal, unpaid time.
“They are the ones who show up every day and transport our students for our school district,” Bryan said.
Not an ideal situation
This plan of attack has concerned local bus contractors, several of whom were invited to chat with the school board during executive session.
“It’s very frightful,” said contractor Judy Powell. “I just have a feeling in years to come the district will own all the buses. That’s just a guesstimate. … They’re opening a can of worms.”
Contractors said they fear they can’t compete with the IRSD in attracting bus drivers, since the new State hires would be eligible for benefits.
“A lot of people are leaving and going anywhere for health benefits. Health benefits is the name of game in the world today,” and a contractor can’t compete, Powell said.
Indeed, some drivers who previously quit working for the contractors had recently approached the IRSD directly about driving again, Bryan said.
Finances are tight for contractors trying to make ends meet, especially since the State of Delaware controls the payment rates, which haven’t been permanently updated since the 1970s, said Keith Johnson. (This spring, Delaware’s Joint Finance Committee is considering an update to the busing contracts, Superintendent Mark Steele said.)
The new IRSD buses and drivers were unanimously approved by the school board, with Board Members Derek Cathell and Donald Hattier absent. The board also approved its annual contract with bus contractors Powell and Johnson.
By Laura Walter