RALEIGH — North Carolina school districts are struggling to find enough bus drivers weeks into the start of the new school year, leading to delays getting students to and from school.
Parents across the state are complaining about how it’s taking longer than normal for their children to get picked up in the morning and come home in the afternoon.
In Guilford County, the district added 55 minutes in between elementary, middle and high school runs and spread out school schedules in hopes of making it easier to get students to class with fewer drivers.
The North Carolina Association of Educators has pinned at least part of the blame on state lawmakers not approving a new budget yet that includes higher salaries 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.
The state pays school bus drivers $12.75 an hour, with school districts supplementing the salaries when they can. Some districts have only recently raised starting salaries for drivers to $15 or more an hour. It’s still below $15 an hour in many districts.
Even with higher pay and hiring bonuses, many school districts are still reporting the need for more drivers.
“We have some bus drivers living on food stamps,” said Zac Campbell, another Wake County school bus driver. “Who wants to sign up for that?”
There is also a national school bus driver shortage at a time when other groups, such as municipal transit agencies and trucking firms, are looking for drivers as well.
“Though the far-left NCAE wishes it were so, the bus driver shortage is not unique to North Carolina, so it’s clear this activist group is yet again trying to stir the pot to muster opposition to Republicans,” Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger, said in a statement. “Schools across North Carolina have millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 recovery money at their fingertips that can be used for bonuses. This is just another publicity stunt from the NCAE to try and convince the public it’s relevant despite its membership plummeting.”
Last week, the Durham school board backed a plan to offer the highest pay for school bus drivers in the region. Drivers will make $17 an hour. Those with 30 years of experience will make $24 an hour.
“Our employees are the heart and soul of Durham Public Schools,” Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said in a statement. “These raises demonstrate our respect for the hard work our bus drivers do every day.”
The Durham vote comes as Chapel Hill-Carrboro’s school district announced it will offer a $4,000 recruitment bonus for new bus drivers.
Wake County is offering a $1,200 bonus for new bus drivers. Even with the bonus, the district has a 17% vacancy rate that has left the school district short more than 130 drivers. The lack of drivers has resulted in the majority of Wake’s bus routes becoming “double runs,” in which drivers have to build in extra time to pick up and drop off two different groups of students at each school.
Green and Campbell said they’ve gone from serving two schools a day to five or more schools. Both talked about how drivers have to skip bathroom breaks to try to get their routes done.
“We’re exhausted and frustrated,” Campbell said. “Exhausted and frustrated bus drivers are unsafe. We need more bus drivers.”
Even with all their efforts, Green said her riders are often 20 minutes late to school. Campbell said his riders routinely get home 30 minutes late.
“Those of us who have stayed have more routes, more schools, more students, more stops and we simply do not have enough time,” Green said. “We do not have enough drivers, period. If this problem is not fixed soon, it is going to get worse.
“It is a statewide problem. It needs a statewide solution.”