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Albemarle parents aren't all thrilled with Haas in the driver's seat amid bus driver shortage

The first day of school is already hectic enough: going down the checklist of school supplies required for the year, packing bags and lunches, getting children out the door and into their seats in the classroom.

In Albemarle County that was only made worse this year by the ongoing bus driver shortage.

Albemarle County Public Schools is still down a dozen bus drivers — not including one driver and three drivers-in-training that quit. It’s meant that hundreds of households had their bus routes cut shortly before the first day of classes on Wednesday.

Parents have had to scramble. Some parents are now driving hours to get their children to and from class, some are carpooling with neighbors and friends, one enterprising Walton Middle School mother has even started a shuttle service that costs $5 to ride.

The Daily Progress was scheduled to speak with school Superintendent Matthew Haas on Wednesday. The administrator was running several minutes behind schedule.

Haas himself has picked up a bus route and had been driving students to Jackson P. Burley Middle School that morning.

“We are making progress with this and each day as school goes on it’s going to keep improving,” Haas told The Daily Progress once he had arrived. “We will reach a point where all students have transportation.”

Already there has been some progress.

Days before school started, the waitlist for students in need of bus service was roughly 1,000. That’s been reduced by about 300, according to county schools spokesman Phil Giaramita. There are currently roughly 670 students on the waitlist for morning bus services and 825 for afternoon services.

The school district plans to continue to drive those numbers down using two strategies.

The first: more drivers.

“The first are the eight trainees and while not all might earn their commercial driving licenses, it’s reasonable to expect we will be filling the some of the 12 current vacancies,” Giaramita told The Daily Progress via email.

The second: adjusting routes.

There were roughly 10,000 students that signed up for bus service over the summer, according to Giaramita. But requests for service rarely match ridership. That number is expected to move closer to 6,500 as the school year progresses, Giaramita said. Once a more accurate ridership target is acquired, routes will be adjusted, said Haas.

“What’s happening is we’re hearing from families that they are not going to use the bus, so we’re able to open up opportunities for students to ride, what we call an alternative route,” Haas said.

An “alternative route” is for students who don’t have a route but live “relatively close” to another route, according to Haas. Those students are able to ride the alternative route as other students opt out of services.

While the school district did lose a bus driver and three trainees amid its recruiting and hiring push, that should not alarm parents, administrators said. It’s not unusual for trainees to drop out, Giaramita said.

“Last week’s developments is counter-balanced by the fact that we now have eight trainees in the system, which is a larger group than usual,” Giaramita said.

But that does little to assuage the concerns of the typical Albemarle parent.

Several parents have taken Haas to task for the driver shortage, which they have said is a failure of leadership. Albemarle County has increased driver pay to $21.50 per hour, one of the highest wages in the area. It’s not the money, some parents say, it’s the people in charge.

“It’s a crying shame that, for a school district with an operating budget this year that has increased to nearly $260 million, solutions couldn’t have been found to correct a situation the school board knew was only getting worse,” T.J. Fadeley, a Stony Point Elementary School father and a candidate for the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, said in a statement. “Let’s be honest; it certainly wasn’t all about the money. What we’re witnessing is a systemic failure that’s permeated the Albemarle County Public Schools, and it starts at the top.”

Haas is adamant that leadership, especially within the school division’s transportation department, is “very strong.”

“They listen to the bus drivers and listen to their staff,” Haas said. “The transportation director we have right now, Charmane, offers lots of opportunities for bus drivers and staff to meet and talk about what they need, and she really distributes leadership among the bus drivers. So, I feel that there’s a lot of good reasons for people that if you’re interested in being part of a strong department that really does a lot to support kids in our community, then our transportation would be a great department to be part of.”

In a way, Haas is now a part of that transportation department since he picked up his Burley route.

“I wanted to pick up a route that wasn’t being covered because it just felt like it would be a way for me to help out until they are able to reconsolidate and hire more drivers,” Haas said.

Haas obtained his commercial driver’s license while working as a teacher and athletic coach in Virginia Beach. He needed it to drive his athletes to and from games, he said.

It hasn’t been the smoothest transition for the coach-turned-superintendent-turned-driver.

There are roughly 35 kids and 10 stops on Haas’ route. On his first day on the job, a student on his bus informed Haas mid-route that he had missed one of those stops.

Haas had to return and fetch the children he had missed.

“I’m definitely looking forward to helping out and getting out and driving and getting to meet a lot of a lot of really good kids and spending time with them and encouraging them,” Haas said.

Some parents, though, don’t believe Haas’ bus route is merely about “helping out.”

“Our administration only tries to make it look like a priority by publicity stunts like Matt Haas driving a bus last minute,” mother Katie Zoll told The Daily Progress in an email. “I don’t want our superintendent driving a bus. I want a leader to lead the charge talking with the community and problem solving accordingly.”

Zoll has three children in the Albemarle school system who have lost bus service, she said. She drives roughly two hours in the morning and afternoon to transport her children to and from school.

Zoll said the division deliberately waited two weeks before school started to “create a panic” so parents would not have the “focus to make a fuss.”

The division’s transportation system is “a mess,” said mother of five Alanna Smith.

One of those five is a Walton student who lost bus service during the recent round of cuts, Smith said.

“I don’t really understand why they seem to be having people not bused who are very far away from the schools,” Smith said. “I can’t imagine what the thought process going into that was.”

So she’s taken matter into her own hands — and making some money while she’s at it.

Smith has started operating what she calls the “Walton Middle School Shuttle” — which is neither endorsed by nor affiliated with the school division — offering a seat on her 15-passenger van to other students near Foxcroft, Mill Creek and Lake Reynovia. It costs $5 one way.

If that seems steep, a 10% discount is offered to those who sign up for a month.

“I think right now people are like, ‘It’s fine, I’ll carpool,’ and then I think they’re going to realize that it’s a big, big pain to constantly be checking with your carpool,” Smith said. “I think once people get sick of managing that, it’ll be a lot easier for them to just say, ‘Alanna will take care of it, and I don’t have to think about it.’”

Private shuttles and Haas in the driver seat are not permanent solutions, though, and Zoll said the county needs to be focusing on those — as other divisions have done.

“The board states many counties are facing these struggles. The difference is that they addressed them and make the fundamental goal of providing equal access to education to all students their highest priority,” Zoll said in an email.

One such example is neighboring Louisa County, which pays drivers 50 cents less per hour than Albemarle and announced that for the second consecutive year it has a full bus staff.

“We’re very blessed,” Louisa County Public Schools Superintendent Doug Straley told The Daily Progress. “Staff shortages are hitting school divisions all across the country and the candidate pool is getting smaller and smaller, but our team has been really proactive and putting in a lot of work to attract and retain the best drivers.”

Unlike the conversation in Albemarle County, which has focused on money and incentives, Straley said that part of the secret to Louisa’s success is something hard to capture elsewhere: community.

“We have a great community that really supports our school division and that type of atmosphere plays a huge role in being able to recruit great people to join your team,” he said. “I’m very pleased, excited and proud of our community that really does go the extra distance to make sure that our schools have what they need.”

He described Louisa’s approach to recruitment as “multilayered.”

“What has worked really well here in Louisa County is just taking a multilayered approach at recruiting high-quality drivers for the school division, whether that be through social media advertisements, flyers, a job fair, whether it’s word of mouth or incentivizing our current employees to help us find additional employees, that’s helped us as well,” Straley said.

Closer to Albemarle, the city of Charlottesville has been struggling with its own bus driver shortage.

“They [City of Charlottesville’s Pupil Transportation Department] have told us that they currently have 12 school bus drivers and 2 relief drivers,” Charlottesville City Schools spokeswoman Amanda Korman told The Daily Progress via email. “The City has said that 20-24 drivers is the minimum number to have a stable network that would be able to serve all bus-eligible students.”

Charlottesville has raised the starting pay of its bus drivers above $22 an hour, according to Korman. The school board and the city have also discussed contracting outside transportation systems.

Roughly 4,500 students will be in Charlottesville schools this fall. About 1,100 students are estimated to be in so-called walk zones. The current walk zones are about three quarters of a mile for elementary schools and about 1.25 miles for Walker Upper Elementary, Buford Middle and Charlottesville High school students.

The division expects a “significant” increase in the amount of students on their buses within the first month of school, Korman said.

“This year we anticipate that more students will have a bus at the beginning of this year than at the same time last year. But there will still be waitlists for bus service (for those who don’t live in their school’s “walk zone.”),” she said.

This year, assigned bus seats were made to “ensure that all high-need students are covered immediately.” Students who are identified as “high-need” include those who would not be able to get to school without a bus and students with special needs, such as documented medical conditions. Students who are “medium” or “low” need are expected to be waitlisted, but not for long.

“We expect many students on the waitlist to get a seat within the first month of school,” Korman said.

Charlottesville has services for students who were not offered transportation such as “adult-staffed ‘walking school buses,’” a walking group for elementary school students.

The school division has also teamed with the city to improve bike and walk routes to schools, and encourages older students to use Charlottesville Area Transit bus services.

While parents are scrambling in surrounding Albemarle County, the Charlottesville School Board said the city school district is in a better position today than it has been in the past.

“The Board recognizes that there are no easy answers and the national bus driver shortage continues to impact communities like ours,” the board said in a written statement to The Daily Progress. “We appreciate that the City and the Schools staff have worked closely with the community and have developed systems that prioritize bus service for those who need it most. We are thankful to be in a better position now than at this time last year.”


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