School district continues to wrestle with a shortage of bus drivers
File photo: Old Marion District Schools school buses are shown at the Marion County Public Schools Northwest Transportation Bus Facility on Northwest Gainesville Road in Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, February 9, 2022. Some of the ARPA funds for Marion County Public Schools will be used to purchase new school buses to replace aging buses in the fleet. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
As the current school year nears the halfway mark, Marion County Public Schools continues to face a shortage of bus drivers, a problem district officials say is leading to late student pickups and drop-offs while impacting some students’ grades as well as morale among the remaining drivers.
According to MCPS spokesperson Kevin Christian, as of Nov. 6, the school district has 269 funded bus driver positions but only 240 drivers behind the wheel to handle 246 total routes. Current bus drivers have absorbed 13 open routes and covered for 18 bus drivers who out on family medical leave or Workers Compensation issues while simultaneously maintaining their own routes.
In addition, there is an average of 10 daily driver absences from sick leave, vacation, and other unlisted reasons, Christian said. Since the first day of school, 12 drivers have left the district.
Configuring a transportation system while the academic year is happening is contributing to student tardiness. The school board receives weekly transportation reports, and at the Nov. 2 meeting, Vice-Chair Nancy Thrower said the most recent report showed 84% of students were delivered to school on time in the morning, and the on-time delivery rate is 64% in the afternoon.
Board Member Eric Cummings said MCPS needs solutions right now.
“I’m getting calls from parents concerning their kid’s grades because they’ve missed instruction time, valuable instruction time,” he said. “I don’t understand how we are going to justify a kid’s grades when we are the culprit in that.”
The board approved adjusting some bell times, moving Marion Technical Institute’s start time from 7:45 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. and changing the Acceleration Academy’s start time to 9:25 a.m. to offset the late arrival and departure problem. These changes took effect on Nov. 6.
The Transportation Department plans to add two vans to help transport students, at the cost of $77,164. If approved at the board’s Nov. 14 meeting, funding will come out of the Capital Outlay budget.
Training new drivers
The district also released there have been 10 accidents involving two new drivers and 16 incidents involving three new drivers since July 1, 2023.
Since the first day of school on Aug. 10, 26 drivers have been trained: 19 regular drivers and seven temporary ones. There are two driver trainers who are teaching the new hires while also driving bus routes themselves. These trainers were approved for an increased work schedule from 220 to 260 days at a cost of $18,820, as the training process is mandatory for new bus drivers.
Interim Supervisor of Transportation Eric Ostanik said, “That way we can continue to train during the summer without having those gaps.’’
The district also is dealing some growing pains with the new drivers. According to district records, there have been 10 accidents involving two new drivers and 16 incidents involving three new drivers since July 1, 2023.
The school board on Nov. 14 will consider hiring a third trainer at a cost of $70,410 as well as approve signing bonuses of $350 per hire as reimbursement for the upfront costs candidates must pay to become drivers. This includes attaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL), taking proper course material, drug testing, fingerprinting, and more. The bonuses will be released to hires after driving a minimum of 30 days.
The district is also asking in-house for help in finding drivers. “HR has sent out an email to all MCPS staff to solicit interested personnel who hold a CDL, and the Transportation Department will be screening all applicants for processing,” according to the department update.
Ostanik said some staffers have already responded with interest, but implementation cannot happen until the school board approves the staffers’ ability to fill in as interim drivers.
The MCPS Communications & Community Engagement department began a PR blitz on Oct. 25 to boost recruitment, explaining as an incentive that a CDL license can be obtained through MCPS.
Operations & Emergency Management Executive Director Barbara Dobbins told the board members they can help by spreading word to the public about becoming a bus driver, adding, “This is a great place to work.”
Dobbins also urged board members to go out into the district and show appreciation for the drivers.
“We all want to work in a positive environment,’’ she said. “So, the more we can put our faces out there with a smile saying thank you, we are enhancing that environment for them.”
Retaining scarce drivers
During the Nov. 2 board meeting, Thrower said, “What I continue to hear is lots of gratitude for the increases in salary for bus drivers and still a lot of dissatisfaction and unhappiness with student behavior on the bus.”
The transportation update says the student-adult ratio is high, with the bus capacity at 60 to 70 students and one adult driver. “This ratio is not acceptable in the classroom and should not be acceptable on the bus,” the update reads.
To help with disciplinary issues, Student Service Managers are expected to assist bus rides when needed. The new job description of Transportation Monitors was approved on Oct. 24 to help in a professional capacity. A proposed 50 monitors, at a cost of $372,003, is on the board’s Nov. 14 agenda. If approved, the hiring process will begin, and the new monitor hires will serve in the areas of highest demand.
The total estimated cost from all of the transportation updates is $555,987. This includes the hiring of 50 bus monitors, the $350 signing bonuses, buying two new vans, the two trainers’ schedule increases, and adding a bus driver trainer.