Albemarle County Public Schools says it is close to fixing its bus driver shortage.
There are currently no Albemarle County students who are not receiving any bus service, and every route is now at least partially in service.
School spokesman Phil Giaramita called the progress “impressive” considering that the district began the year with a dozen bus driver vacancies, resulting in nearly 1,000 students without school bus access.
“Our normal roster of full-time drivers is approximately 132, and we are adding two drivers in the next two weeks,” Giaramita said in an email to The Daily Progress. “We went from 12 open routes to zero open routes.”
But he did offer some words of caution.
Just because no student is now without any bus service does not mean they all have full bus service. For example, two routes only provide service in the morning, which affects 160 students.
And not all of the district’s progress is due to the hiring of more drivers; there has has also been route consolidation.
“Each school year, families request service for more than 9,000 students but actual ridership once the school year begins is closer to 6,800,” Giaramita wrote.
That means the school system needs to plan for 9,000 students in the summer, but can make adjustments in the autumn once the year is underway and the true number of riders becomes clearer.
“The other caution is that we traditionally see some retirements at the end of the calendar year and we are again expecting that some drivers will retire over the next several weeks,” Giaramita said. “The number who do retire will have some impact on the number of new drivers who need to be added.”
A large number of retirements could spell trouble.
Currently, with 550 bus routes and approximately 132 full-time drivers, drivers are responsible for multiple routes. Because elementary school starts earlier than middle and high school, a driver may have to take an elementary school route in the early morning and a high school route directly after. If there is a large number of retirements, remaining drivers could be stretched too thin to satisfy every route, possibly resulting in route closures.
Giaramita said hiring drivers is a constant, year-round focus.
“There always are openings for bus drivers. The division is constantly in a recruit mode,” he said.
It will also need to retain drivers. There have been instances where employees have left the job not long after accepting the position, perhaps a symptom of the difficult conditions drivers can face, such as unorthodox hours, unruly students and a salary some say isn’t livable.
Albemarle County now pays drivers $21.50 per hour, one of the highest wages in the area. Neighboring Louisa County, which did not have a driver shortage this year, pays $21 an hour.
While the division has been aided by the reduction in riders — which creates shorter ride times and thus frees up drivers to take multiple routes — that number is unlikely to decrease further. And although there appears to currently be a good driver-to-rider ratio, that could change if there are retirements and resignations without new drivers to fill the void.
Still, the improvements will be a welcomed sight for parents.
Some were scrambling for solutions when the school year kicked off and their children were without bus access.
Parents devised carpooling systems with neighbors and friends. Others had to drive hours to take their children to and from class. School Superintendent Matthew Haas even filled in as a bus driver to help cover a route — something that some parents called a "publicity stunt" earlier in the school year. At the time, a petition calling on the school board not to renew Haas’ contract specifically cited his handling of the driver shortage. That petition failed and Haas’ contract was renewed in October two years before it was even up.
A thousand students were placed on a wait list for bus service heading into the year. By late August, that number was cut down to 670 for morning bus services and 825 for afternoon service.
The progress that has been made since is sure to help relieve headaches for Albemarle parents. But whether or not that progress will be sustained remains to be seen.