There's a statewide trend with a shortage of school bus drivers.

If the 2017-18 school year started tomorrow, districts across the state would be short on bus drivers. 

For example, Caesar Rodney High School had a contractor refuse roughly 15 bus routes since the contractor lacked drivers, said CR transportation supervisor Jason Bonner.

Districts throughout the state, drivers and a contractor have all blamed the shortage on poor pay.

Smyrna School District transportation supervisor Sharon Almondo said she’s short at least six drivers, partly because some have retired.

“I’m friends with all the transportation supervisors [in the state] and we meet once a month. Everyone is concerned about the shortage of drivers,” Almondo said. “We’re all behind the 8-ball and we don’t know what pocket we’re going to land in.”

The state’s complex formula determines how bus operations are funded.

The minimum 30-mile route pays contractors $20,000 per bus, said Gerald Dutton, president of the state’s School Bus Contractor Association.

The average route for a driver is 60 miles, Dutton said, earning contractors roughly $30,000 per bus. That is intended to cover bus maintenance, drivers, insurance, mileage and other expenses, he said.

Contractors earning ‘dimes’ 

Dutton, president of Dutton Bus Service in Millsboro, said he and other contractors are still struggling, despite the state’s assistance. He said the state needs to create a new formula because it hasn’t seen a major change in 40 years.

“We’ve been in a fight with the state right now for the last two years, trying to get something big done on our contract, so that we can pay drivers more money and the contractors can actually see a profit,” Dutton said.

“As a contractor in the state, you’re almost running as a nonprofit organization, because there’s not a lot of money allotted for a contractor to run a school bus,” he said. “You’ve got your expenses, fuel and driver pay. You’re left with dimes.”

Drivers are paid based on mileage, Dutton said. The average route is 60 miles, which is roughly $50 per day. Drivers are part-time and usually work four hours a day (two in the morning and two in the afternoon) on school days.

This school year, the state will give contractors an increase of 5 cents a mile, per route. This will bump it up from an estimated $1.35 to $1.40, Dutton said.

The Millsboro bus contractor said his peers would feel more comfortable if they were paid $1.80 a mile, per route.

“I think every contractor would be happy in the end because that would take care of the bus,” Dutton said.

Dawson Bus Service in Camden-Wyoming - holding contracts with Capital School District, Polytech High School and Caesar Rodney – also needs drivers.

Smyrna’s Almondo is no stranger to hearing the financial cries of contractors and drivers. She’s been a transportation specialist for 40 years, including stints at Red Clay and Christina school districts.

“These contractors are not making a profit. They’re just keeping their head above water,” Almondo said. “They cannot afford to give the drivers an increase.”

The good and bad 

Veteran driver Gene Shaner will begin doing routes for Appoquinimink School District this fall. He said a fair salary would be $100 per day, due to how demanding the job is.

Drivers can transport from 25 to 72 kids on a bus. Grades K-5 are allowed three students to a seat.

“When you’re driving and trying to control 30 kids by getting them to stay seated, it can be stressful,” Shaner said. “If you think driving a car and talking on your cellphone is dangerous, try keeping control of a busload of school kids.”

Due to low pay, many drivers are unable to make a living at driving a bus, unless they’re retired or have a spouse or partner earning more income.

Melissa Harding, a driver for Smyrna, said her job is just as important as a teacher, so she should be paid and respected like one.

“You hear about teachers [being praised] a lot, but a lot of times you don’t hear about the good things the drivers are doing,” Harding said. “But the pay is a problem. You have to do what you have to do to make ends meet. It’s hard.”

Despite the low wages and responsibility, there are perks.

Karen McClements, who’s driven for Smyrna for about 15 years, said it’s a good job if you’re retired and looking for a little extra money.

Fellow Smyrna driver Harding mentioned it’s ideal for someone who doesn’t want to work in an office.

“When I was younger, I always wanted to be a bus driver. You’re not stuck in one spot and you get to meet people,” said Harding, who’s been a driver for six years. “It’s not just about driving the kids. You also do field trips and travel different places.”

Being a driver can be appealing if you’re a stay-at-home mom or dad.

McClements said the job was convenient when her daughter was in school, because they had the same days off.

Brandywine transportation supervisor DeVale pointed out that bus driving can be helpful for college students seeking part-time work.

More waiting, longer ride

The shortage might force some students to wait longer for their bus. 

Last year, a lack of drivers forced some students at Appoquinimink School District to wait an hour to go home or get picked up.

“Last year, by far, was pretty bad,” said Appoquinimink transportation supervisor Stacey McIntosh. “And this year we are looking way better than we were last year, which is positive.”

McIntosh said they’re facing a shortage of six to 10 drivers, an improvement over 10 to 15 the district had to contend with last year. But some students might not be happy with the duration of their bus ride this fall.

“We did a lot of condensing of routes, making them longer,” McIntosh said.

She said the lack of drivers isn’t just a challenge around the start of the school year, but also after the holiday season. It’s not uncommon for a driver to quit after they’ve earned enough cash for Christmas.

Indian River School District transportation systems analyst Tyler Bryan said his district struggled with a shortage last year. Right now, he said, they’re down about 15 drivers.

Brandywine School District - which faced a shortage last year - is down about 10 drivers this fall, said new transportation supervisor Courtney DeVale. She started at Brandywine this spring. DeVale relocated from a school district in the south where they had the same problem.

“We were short 15 drivers last year in North Carolina,” she said.

DeVale said one of the challenges she noticed in North Carolina and Delaware is the amount of time it takes for a bus driver to be trained and qualified.

It can take one to three months to make a new hire, partly because of how long it can take a hire to get scheduled for the driver’s test.

“We just had people who passed the written portion of their test in June, and they were not scheduled until this September to take the driver’s portion,” DeVale said.

Drivers must pass a series of tests, including one where they’re expected to know the bus right down to its internal parts. “They’re not easy tests,” DeVale said.

Dutton said 25 percent of his prospective hires don’t successfully complete all the requirements.

Shortage may get worse

Unless the pay scale is adjusted, some in the transportation industry feel the driver shortage will continue.

Smyrna’s transportation supervisor is one.

“We know you have a tough job,” Almondo said about bus contractors. “You’re not driving the chicken truck. You’re driving our children. And you deserve a raise to get dependable and sincere drivers.”

Millsboro contractor Dutton agrees.

“There’s not a lot we can do,” he said, adding it’s been difficult for him to hire new drivers over the last five years, “because the economy has gotten better, so more people are getting other jobs.”

Dutton said there were about 400 contractors in the state 12 years ago. Now there are 156.

“We’re pushed by the wayside,” he said. “We’re holding the most precious cargo in the world. But yet it’s a thankless job.”