Lawmakers approved a raise for drivers, but will that will help put more behind the wheel?

It may take a while to learn if additional money allotted this year to the Department of Education will help alleviate a chronic shortage of school bus drivers.

Despite continual efforts to sign up new drivers, Delaware still cannot enlist enough qualified people to drive students to and from schools every day, said Larry Linaweaver, a transportation supervisor at the Delaware Department of Education.

“It’s better, but we’re not where we need to be,” Linaweaver said. “I think the legislature’s decision to increase pay definitely helped. We are filling buses, although some districts still are having to do extra runs because they are short.”

Pay raises coming

Gerald Dutton can agree. Dutton is president of the nonprofit Delaware Bus Drivers’ Association. He owns Dutton Bus Service in Millsboro.

His company provides buses and drivers to Indian River, Sussex Tech and Sussex Academy public schools and two private schools. His company employs 75 people, which includes drivers, mechanics and administrative staff.

“For the last couple of years, everyone has had issues with retaining drivers, and we’re still having that problem this year,” Dutton said.

Dutton has 58 drivers who cover 61 routes, meaning some drive more than one. He’s often on the road himself.

Acknowledging the continuing dearth of drivers and reacting to lobbying efforts by the DBDA, state legislators provided more money in this year’s budget to give bus drivers a pay hike, hoping the extra money would increase the number of trained, available drivers.

Lawmakers didn’t specify an amount, instead tying it to the general salary increase for state employees.

The state uses a detailed formula, involving insurance costs, administrative factors, fuel, exams, and mechanical inspections to determine how much the contractors and districts are paid, Linaweaver said.

When the money becomes available, the districts will use it to pay their drivers and contractors.

Wanted: 100 more drivers statewide

Dutton, however, shares Linaweaver’s concern. While the situation may improve, it’s too early to be certain if extra money will solve the shortage.

And it’s a widespread problem. National School Transportation Association spokeswoman Jessica Pinkerton said many school districts nationwide cannot find enough drivers.

Several things contribute to the shortfall, but “the training and testing needed to become a school bus driver is significant and discourages some people from entering the profession,” Pinkerton said.

According to the DBDA, 1,650 bus routes run through the state’s 19 school districts and its private schools. The Department of Education has agreements with more than 200 bus contractors to cover 18 districts. The Brandywine district administers its own transportation system and owns the buses.

Without enough people to cover all the routes, some drivers work a second or even third route each day, Dutton said, and the districts and contractors could use about 100 more drivers.

In the Appoquinimink School District, supervisor Stacey McIntosh oversees 118 routes. There was full coverage at the beginning of the year, but the contractors have lost 12 drivers, she said.

“When shortages occur, our bus contractors draw on their pool of substitute drivers,” she said. “While that alleviates the problem, it doesn’t solve it entirely. Currently, between one and three drivers are required to double-up on their routes, resulting in delays of 30 to 40 minutes for affected students.”

The district may have to advertise in newspapers to help fill those empty positions, she added.

Indian River: doing better

Indian River Transportation Supervisor Tyler Bryan oversees 35 bus contractors and nine drivers employed by the district. Each school day 165 buses fan out over 360 square miles. About 50 buses do double routes, Bryan said.

“We’re doing much better than last year,” he said. “When we started [in 2017] we needed 10 to 12 drivers, this year we’re short about four. We could use those and another four or five to get us to where we’re comfortable.”

The district altered some routes and schedules last year, which helped alleviate the shortage. Despite some parental grumbling, Indian River kept that schedule for 2018, he said.

The Caesar Rodney School District has taken a similar approach, transportation supervisor Jason Bonner said.

He said the diminishing number of drivers has been a problem over the past five to seven years. From his experience, fewer people have entered the drivers’ pool recently. But the district has found a way to handle the problem, he said.

“Caesar Rodney worked to change our bell schedules to allow every bus to have two runs a day,” Bonner said, so they need fewer drivers this year. “Our proactive approach to the driver shortage dilemma has, I believe, put Caesar Rodney in a good place in terms of having enough drivers for all our schools.”

Time-consuming application

Because of the emphasis on road safety and protecting children, certification as a driver is not an overnight affair.

Applicants must have a pre-employment drug test, a child protection registry check, submit a criminal background affidavit and be fingerprinted for state and federal criminal background checks.

It can take up to five weeks for the background check to come from the FBI, Dutton said.

Candidates must undergo a physical that includes screening for tuberculosis, according to published Department of Education requirements.

If accepted, prospective drivers undergo two six-hour days of classroom instruction and a minimum of six hours of hands-on driving training. Most contractors have at least 20 hours of instruction. They also learn about the bus’s mechanical systems and what do in a breakdown.

“It takes more than just six hours to train a person to drive a school bus,” said Dutton, a certified bus driver instructor.

“We take them out and show them how to drive on the road, on the highway, in the city, and in rural areas, showing them what they’re supposed to be looking for,” he said. This includes knowing how far to pull over to the side of the road, how to turn a 45-foot-long vehicle around a corner while carrying up to 60 children and other factors designed to keep students and the public safe.

Many drivers are retirees who apply prior work skills, he said. The seniors supplement retirement income or make up for investments lost during the last recession.

“They have a work ethic, which works for us,” he said. “They come in early, do their driving, go home and come back in the afternoon.”

The recession led to more people hiring on as drivers, and the recent economic upturn has caused a loss of drivers.

“During the recession, we were turning people away,” Dutton said.

Contractors are paid for a minimum of 30 miles a day, Dutton said, for one trip in the morning and another in the afternoon. Some routes, he said, can run as much as 140 miles -- 70 miles out and 70 miles back.

The average driver can expect to pocket more than $50 per day. Some receive extra pay if they have a more difficult route, Dutton added.

“You know, there are routes out there where the kids are great, you pick them up and you drop them off,” Dutton said. “But then you’ve got others where stuff is going on behind you and you have to focus on your driving and making sure there are no accidents.”

Some drivers simply decide the stress isn’t worth the money, Dutton said. When districts or contractors lose a driver, sometimes without advance notice, they have to scramble to keep buses on schedule.

‘We have to be creative’

That’s a familiar situation for Capital School District transportation supervisor Bruce Ashby. Now in his 60s, he started driving when he was out of high school. He supervises the district’s 94 routes, eight contractors and the district’s own corps of drivers, and Ashby sometimes is called upon to fill in for a sick or departed driver.

“I’ve already done it several times this year,” he said.

The district has a full roster of its own drivers, but its contractors are not so fortunate, Ashby said.

“Some of them are three or four drivers short and they’re always juggling things throughout the day,” he said. “Nobody can get caught up. Here at Capital, right now I have enough, but that could change at any time.”

Despite the shortage, at about three weeks into the school year, things are running relatively well, Ashby said.

“We haven’t had to alter or change any bell times to accommodate bus routing,” he said. “At this point, we’ve been able to work with it and for the most part buses run on time.”

Still, Ashby hopes the state’s pay raises will bring in more driver applications.

“School is up and running and things are smoothing out,” he said. “But the driver shortage is still out there. If we were able to attract more drivers, that would make everybody’s job a lot easier.”

The shortage has been pretty much eliminated in the Red Clay School District, according to transportation manager Kelly Shahan.

The solution was changing the daily start and end times, she said.

“We had been losing drivers last year because the economy was getting white-hot,” she said. “No one wanted to be a bus driver anymore. We went to a three-tier bell system, and that freed up a bunch of drivers, allowing us to have drivers for all of the existing routes,” she said.

Red Clay now has 125 bus routes and 45 are handled by contractors. The other 80 are run by the district’s buses and drivers.

“We had drivers coming to us,” Shahan said. “We’ve been hiring like crazy and we’re still hiring so we have spare drivers. It gives us a lot more flexibility.”

With the school year just beginning, Shahan cannot say if the General Assembly’s pay raise caused the influx of drivers.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” she said. “If we had just gotten a pay increase and hadn’t changed our bell system, we might have managed to keep the status quo. We’ve really been able to do sufficient hiring.”