Increased Pay Could Help Resolve Shortage Of School Bus Drivers

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ITHACA, NY (WSKG) — Getting kids back into school in person this year has been a challenge, and one place where many schools are still struggling is transportation. There are not enough school bus drivers to go around.

There was less of a need for school bus drivers last year because many districts held classes remotely or at lower capacity, but, this year, teachers and students are feeling the pinch again. 

Lexi Hartley, a teacher in the Ithaca City School District, said when buses are late, her 9:00 AM class starts late too.

“So pretty consistently, I don’t have a full class until 9:30,” Hartley said. “And that means I only have 15 minutes with all my students before class actually ends.”

Hartley added there’s a pattern in the students who are affected the most.

“The students that take the buses tend to be students who are more economically marginalized.” 

Buses line up in front of Maine-Endwell Middle School to take students home after school. (Megan Zerez/WSKG)

 

Like many other districts across the region, Ithaca’s lack of school bus drivers predates the pandemic. 

“School districts being a government entity, it makes it harder to compete with the pay,” said Ryan Grey, editor of School Transportation New. “School bus drivers traditionally have never been funded — that position has never been funded to the degree that it should be.”

That has meant many school bus drivers don’t consider the job a full time gig. It’s traditionally been a popular job amongst semi-retired people, but during the pandemic, many of those older workers left the workforce — some retired fully, others were victims of the virus.

And now, it’s tough for school districts to stand out against all the other employers that require a CDL license, especially if wages have remained the same throughout the pandemic.

Lisa Bennett is the transportation director at Union Endicott School District. She said they raised the pay to almost $18 an hour. A flier from April 2021 lists a previous starting salary of $13.97.

“I went to the administration and I said, ‘We need to do something here to make this a little bit more attractive,'” Bennett said. She was able to hire three more drivers this summer.

So far there’s been a lot of different suggestions to try and alleviate the labor crunch — like increasing the number of CDL test sites, temporarily waiving the CDL requirement for school bus drivers, and reducing bus services for students who opt to attend a school outside of their home district.

But teachers and staff said unless districts are able to offer more competitive pay, they don’t see things changing anytime soon.

This year’s state budget includes increased school funding that can be used to bridge the gap once federal COVID relief funds run out.

That means that some school districts may now be able to consider using those federal dollars where they’re needed most — like paying better wages for school bus drivers.