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'Going to get worse': Guilford school leaders struggle to fix bus driver shortage
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'Going to get worse': Guilford school leaders struggle to fix bus driver shortage

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GREENSBORO — Lacking enough bus drivers and school nutrition workers, Guilford County Schools leaders plan to gauge whether drivers would be interested in adding cafeteria work to their day. 

Chief Financial Officer Angie Henry said that many bus drivers work split shifts, with routes in the morning and afternoon, and therefore work less than full-time. She said they are looking to help interested bus drivers find opportunities to work in a school cafeteria between those shifts, which would increase their hours.  

Superintendent Sharon Contreras views the strategy as one more idea to try rather than something that's likely to solve the staffing shortage.

Another idea officials have been contemplating, she said, is transporting more students in 14-passenger buses, which do not require a commercial driver's license to operate. 

Contreras also said she has been reaching out to lawmakers and to Gov. Roy Cooper to express the situation's urgency. 

"I think we are going to need some state and federal support and state and federal innovation around this since this isn't a Guilford County problem, it's not just a North Carolina problem, it's a national problem," Contreras said. "Students aren't getting to school so we need some assistance." 

The district has 58 vacant bus driver positions out of 510, plus another 49 drivers on leave.

For school nutrition workers, there are 183 vacancies out of 631 positions. 

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The numbers are in line with other school districts across the United States, according to Michelle Reed, the district's chief operations officer. They reflect pandemic-era trends, but also shortages that were brewing in the already tight labor markets prior to the coronavirus crisis.

In fall 2019, top district officials were already expressing concern about the shortage of bus drivers. At the time, district leaders were discussing how to give raises to drivers while also trying to recruit teachers and part-time staff to pick up bus routes for extra pay. 

In October of that year, at a time when the district had about 60 driver spots vacant, some of the remaining bus drivers threatened a walk out, then called it off. By December, county commissioners had agreed to kick in some money to help pay for bus driver raises and the schools set a $15-per-hour minimum for bus driver pay in 2020. 

When the pandemic hit last March, bus drivers and school nutrition workers took on different roles, many of them focused on providing grab-and-go meals at sites across the community while schools were closed. 

Gradually, over the course of the 2020-21 school year, Guilford County Schools began bringing students back to classes. By the end of the year, when most had returned to classroom instruction, it was becoming clear that the shortage of bus drivers was affecting the district's ability to get students to class on time. 

Meanwhile, school nutrition workers, rallying with the Guilford County Association of Educators, were also asking for a $15-per-hour minimum salary. School leaders also called for raises and were able to enact them after county commissioners agreed to cover the cost in June. 

Recently, the North Carolina Association of Educators has been trying to pressure lawmakers to finish the state budget, one that would include raises for bus drivers. 

“Instead of passing a budget, state lawmakers sit on a $6.5 billion surplus,” said Juneakcia Green, a Wake County school bus driver.  “Those of us who have stayed have more routes, more schools, more students, more stops and we simply do not have enough time. We do not have enough drivers, period.

"If this problem is not fixed soon, it is going to get worse."

The Tribune News Service contributed to this story.

Contact Jessie Pounds at 336-373-7002 and follow @JessiePounds on Twitter.​

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