A small Arkansas school district increased bus drivers’ pay by 19%. Will it fix the shortage?
Parents say problems run deeper than the driver shortage and low pay
(Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)
Sheridan School District bus drivers have had a rough year.
Two drivers and the bus driver coordinator resigned in March, effective at the end of the school year. That followed numerous other resignations since 2019.
Drivers are retiring, seeking other jobs and quitting because of stress from disruptive student behavior and verbal abuse from parents.
Parents, too, are stressed about the uncertainties of daily school transportation for their children. Automated text messages about late or canceled buses from the school district come at the last minute, if at all. They take out their frustrations on drivers, especially on social media.
One positive is that students are not penalized if they are late or absent due to issues caused by the district’s transportation, Andy Mayberry, the district’s communications director, said.
The situation in Sheridan is particularly dire, but driver shortages have plagued districts across Arkansas, especially in rural areas.
The salary equation
Drivers in Sheridan are scared to talk publicly because they fear retaliation by the school administration and the school board. They said that they turn in students for disciplinary problems, and they may or may not get a response from administration.
For all of these headaches, the drivers say the salary is too low.
The Sheridan administrators and the school board attempted to address low pay at Monday night’s board meeting.
Mayberry wrote in an email that the “Sheridan School District Board of Education approved a 5.4% or greater increase for classified personnel.”
That increase included bus drivers.
Mayberry said the new bus driver salary schedule includes 24 steps. Drivers will earn between $20 to $28.05 per hour. Drivers who already earn $28.05 per hour will receive a 5.4% increase.
“As a group, bus drivers in the Sheridan School District will receive a 19+ percent increase and the new average salary for bus drivers will be about $24 per hour,” Mayberry said.
Bus driver shortage in rural Arkansas district strands kids, angers parents
The nearly 20% increase can impact drivers differently depending on whether they are a new or a veteran driver.
In the school’s 2022-23 classified salary scale, a step-one driver earned $10,548 for a 180-day contract. That is equivalent to $58.60 a day based on the school’s three to three-and-half hour average route.
The new pay scale for a step-one driver for a three-hour route is $20 an hour, or $60 a day. For a three-and-half hour route the pay is $70 per day.
Veteran drivers’ pay will depend on their step on the pay scale. The new pay scale has a 35 cent per hour increase per step.
Mayberry said, “The average route for our district requires a driver to work 3 ½ hours per day, 180 days per year.”
“We have established regular routes so we know the general amount of time it takes for the routes,” Mayberry wrote in an email. “We also have software that allows us to track the routes if necessary. Each school year, drivers are issued contracts for the expected hours for those routes and shortly after the beginning of the school year, the times are audited. If the routes are taking longer than contracted, the contracts are amended to reflect the additional time.”
Sheridan bus drivers have a timecard. Their time starts, according to Mayberry, when the drivers begin their morning route and ends when the morning route is over. The time starts again when the afternoon route starts and ends when the route is completed, Mayberry said.
“Some drivers start and end at the Support Services building in Sheridan, and some drivers take the bus to their house,” Mayberry said. “The paid time also includes a total of 15 minutes (both morning and afternoon) for pre- and post-trip checks.”
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According to the Arkansas Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation, a pre-trip inspection includes numerous checks, including fluid leaks, brakes, steering wheel lash, tires and wheels, exhaust and stop-arm crossing gate.
“CDL law requires every commercial driver to perform a pre-trip inspection,” Kimberly Mundel, director of communications with the Arkansas Department of Education. “We offer the form, but they aren’t required to use that particular form. Every district can develop and use its own form, but the form should include the safety functions of the vehicle.”
The Sheridan School District provides employer-sponsored health insurance.
“The employee portion of the health insurance premium varies based on the plan and coverage options selected by the employee,” Mayberry said in his email. “District employees are on the state public school insurance plan, and rates and plan options are the same for all the school’s employees. The lowest employee premium (employee only on the basic coverage) is $54.31/month and the highest employee premium (family on the premium coverage) is $848.74/month. All employee premiums are pre-tax deductions.”
The statewide equation
Even with their new salary increase, Sheridan still faces competition from nearby districts vying for bus drivers during a national shortage.
A job posting for a part-time school bus driver in Little Rock offers a $19.50 an hour starting wage, paid training leading to a CDL, summer night courses and a $250 training completion bonus. That job guarantees five hours a day.
Nearby Pine Bluff School district offers a $23,067 salary for a step-one bus driver for five hours.
“This is a big issue across the state,” Dennis W. Copeland, Arkansas Rural Education Association director, said. “Several districts are adding more money for bus drivers, but not very many takers. Many years ago, teachers would supplement their incomes by driving a bus. As the years have passed many teachers have decided not to take on the extra stress. With an aging workforce and my retirements, the issue will probably get worse.”
Bus drivers interviewed for this story agree. They said that even with Monday night’s raise that they are not even close to being able to live off of the low pay.
The hours, drivers say, are not guaranteed although administration tells them they may get four hours a day. Bus drivers, Mayberry said, can apply for any job for which they are qualified.
“Paraprofessional, or instructional assistant, positions are also often available and the hours work well in combination with those of a bus driver,” Mayberry said.
Mayberry also said that any person working a classified position could potentially also drive a bus.
“Primarily, instructional assistants and bus shop aides are the positions who have also driven a bus, however, we have other classified employees drive buses,” Mayberry said. “We have custodians who are bus drivers — generally these individuals are employed by an outside company. Those in certified positions may also drive a bus, and the school will work to accommodate their schedule. If a person can only drive a morning route, or just an afternoon route, or just wants to be in the sub pool for drivers… we will do our best to work with their schedule.”
Even with the board’s vote to increase pay, a group of concerned Sheridan parents and citizens say that the raise is not enough. More problems exist than just a bus driver shortage and low pay. These include a flawed parent notification text about late buses, safety at bus stops and unruly students creating a hostile environment for drivers.
Last week a group launched a campaign to collect 50 registered voters’ signatures on a petition calling for a special school board meeting to address the transportation and other issues without having to seek approval as an agenda item in a regular school board meeting. They plan to continue the fight.
Glenn Strong, Sr., a grandparent, who is leading the petition effort, said the raise was a “slap in the face” to drivers.
“Name another school in our area that has lost a high percentage of their drivers in the last two years?” Strong said. “It’s a lack of respect and low pay. I plan on calling a meeting in June. It is only a matter of time before a child is kidnapped or killed because of this shortage. The Sheridan School District needs to focus on student safety other than the buildings. Maybe the administration and school board need to stand on the side of the road for an hour or more past their time to go to work to understand the dangers of this.”
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