In light of a continued bus driver shortage, officials in the Charlottesville school division want to boost the pay of drivers.
“Pupil driver availability continues to be a serious concern,” said Kim Powell, the division’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, at the School Board’s retreat last week in Short Pump.
Powell told board members that the city is aware of the issue and working on it, though what exactly the pay boost will look like is up in the air. The city school division pays the city transit department to provide student transportation.
At Friday’s retreat, the board signed off on sending a letter of concern and support for action to City Manager Chip Boyles.
The exact cost of a potential raise also is not decided, though Powell’s presentation included an additional $660,804 for transportation, which would be paid for with federal stimulus funds.
As the division brought students back to in-person classes in March, it was not able to provide transportation to all students because of the driver shortage and COVID-19 mitigation measures. The wait list shrank within a month as more drivers came on board following changes at the Department of Motor Vehicles that made it easier for new drivers to get the required license.
If the city doesn’t address the shortage now, it could face similar equity challenges in the fall, when classes resume five days a week, if it’s not able to transport every student, Powell said.
“Honestly, March was a really hard month for us, and I don’t want that for our families, for our staff or anyone. We’ve got to get ahead of this,” she said.
Adding urgency to the situation is a planned raise for classified employees in the Albemarle County school division, Powell said.
In the city, drivers start at $16.51 an hour, and the position is part time. Drivers get some health and retirement benefits, but not the same as a full-time employee. Albemarle drivers start at about $15.33 an hour but that will increase to a little more than $16 an hour after July 1, though officials have flexibility in what specific salary step to start employees. County drivers receive full-time health and retirement benefits if they work at least six hours a day.
Since January, the city has lost two drivers to Albemarle County because of the better pay and benefits, Powell said.
Following Friday’s retreat, city staff and division staff can now take a more in-depth look at wage proposals. Powell said she’s proposed providing 14 driver positions full-time, which aligns with the current drivers who are working a near full-time schedule.
The $2.9 million contract for this fiscal year includes 28 drivers, according to division documents. From September to early March, the city has lost 12 drivers to other employment or because of COVID-19 concerns.
Powell said she’s concerned about how the broader market will affect the availability of drivers for next school year.
“Somebody can go to work now at a lot of fast food places and make $15 or more an hour, get tuition assistance and full-time benefits and full-time hours,” she said.
Additionally, county school bus drivers are set to receive a 4% raise next fiscal year in addition to any salary bump because of increasing the minimum pay rate to $15 an hour.
A driver making $17 an hour would see their hourly rate bumped up to $18.16 an hour following the minimum wage change, according to a presentation in April. Then, that employee would receive a 4% raise come July 1, bringing the hourly rate to $18.89.
Powell said the county’s presentation prompted city transit officials to look at boosting driver pay.
Next month, the board will approve technical adjustments to its Fiscal Year 2022 budget, which could include the pay increase for bus drivers.
“So much has got to happen with the promotion of all this once the action is taken,” Powell said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. We are not out of the woods as far as the pupil driver situation.”