After a year of working to bring on more school bus drivers, Charlottesville is back to square one.
With fewer than 10 drivers on board for the coming school year — a third of what’s needed — the division is looking to expand walking zones, provide free bikes and hire additional crossing guards. These changes, officials said, will relieve pressure on the bus system to transport students to and from school.
Charlottesville and other school systems across the country have struggled to find people to drive school buses amid a shortage of drivers with commercial driver’s licenses that has affected other industries. The Albemarle County school division also is exploring other options to get students to school on time.
“It’s not going away,” Charlottesville chief operations officer Kim Powell said of the shortage. “We have to be prepared to try new things.”
Charlottesville has prioritized bus ridership using a range of criteria since in-person classes resumed in March 2021 and leaned on community partners to help students get to school. Near the end of the school year, officials reduced the list of students waiting for a bus seat from more than 1,000 students in August 2021 to about 200.
During the 2019-20 school year, about 2,200 students relied on the bus to get to school, according to division data.
“I appreciate how difficult these changes are for so many in our community,” schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. wrote to families last week when the new plan was announced. “At the same time, like any educator, it is in my nature to take the long view: If we invest well in this different approach to school transportation, our community will have safer routes for walking and biking, better public transit, and healthier outcomes for both people and the planet.”
The school division wants to hear feedback on their plan. They will hold the first of three “Talk and Walk” events Wednesday at Westhaven. The session will run from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., according to a division news release. Input also can be provided online via a Google form or by calling (434) 245-2400. For more information, go to charlottesvilleschools.org/transportation.
Charlottesville announced the changes after working for the last year to recruit more drivers. Those efforts included a health insurance incentive and a $2,400 bonus to new and current drivers. Charlottesville bus drivers make between $16.51 and $18.32 an hour to start, though many typically start at $17.99 an hour, according to a job posting.
The number of drivers behind the wheel peaked at 22 in the spring. The school system contracts with the city for student transportation.
But, resignations and retirements at the end of the school year put the division down to nine available drivers in early June. The city transit department has said at least 24 drivers are needed, though a team of 40 would give drivers time off and provide transportation for students with special needs.
“What we and other school divisions across the country are learning is that the bonuses attract attention, but they don’t necessarily solve long-term problems,” city schools spokeswoman Beth Cheuk said last month.
School board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said the staffing situation is disappointing.
“We worked so hard in conjunction with the city to try and eke up the number of drivers last year,” she said. “I don’t think anybody anticipated being in the hole to the extent that we are starting out this next year, so it’s really hard.”
The School Board was briefed on the new transportation plan last month and supported the changes, including increasing the number of students ineligible for bus service. Previously, elementary students within 0.3 miles of their schools were not eligible. Students within a half-mile of Walker Upper Elementary and Buford Middle were also ineligible. Charlottesville High students weren’t eligible if they lived within 0.7 miles of the school. The division said those walking zones were among the shortest in the country.
The new walk zones will be three-quarters of a mile for elementary students, which the division said would be about a 20-minute walk. Walk zones for Buford, Walker and CHS will be 1.25 miles, or about a 30-minute walk. The division plans to make exceptions for areas where walking infrastructure is inadequate, something the board believed was important.
“I’ve already seen some tweets from parents, saying this area is really concerning,” Larson-Torres said. “That’s exactly the type of information and feedback that we need and want to hear because people in the neighborhoods know the areas that are dangerous or riskier.”
A new fleet of buses
Charlottesville’s plan also includes purchasing a fleet of smaller Type A buses that do not require a commercial driver’s license to operate. Division staff first briefed the school board in early June on a plan to spend up to $800,000 on the 10 buses. At the time, officials expected that it would take about nine months before the buses would hit the streets in Charlottesville.
Each bus can transport up to 14 students. To drive one of the buses, a driver needs an S endorsement on their license. By late May, 36 division employees had expressed interest in driving a Type A bus, according to a board presentation.
Larson-Torres said she’s excited about the new buses.
“We can control a little bit of transportation ourselves,” she said.
The school division has contracted with the city for transportation since 1986, but city officials have considered over the years whether and how to transfer that task back to the schools.
“That’s a big undertaking and a big shift in funds,” Larson-Torres said. “To even start with the smaller fleet and to be able to manage that ourselves is a good step in the right direction.”
Albemarle County is planning to purchase four Type A buses to transport students with special needs, transportation director Charmane White said in an interview last month. The division also is looking to partner with Charlottesville Area Transit and JAUNT to get some students to school. Both transit agencies are not currently not charging fares to riders.
White said that CAT has existing routes that students could use to get to school. That potential partnership could eliminate five routes, freeing up those drivers to help in other areas. Charlottesville is exploring ways for older students to ride CAT to school.
White said that although the county did not deny transportation to any student, the department struggled to get students to school on time this past year.
‘This is probably the worst year in all my years of being in transportation and I’ve been in this business for 30 years,” White said.
In order to drive each student who wanted it, the transportation department used double runs, which White said were not a favorite of parents, students or administrators. In a double run, one bus driver runs a route, picks up students and takes them to school, and then goes back out to pick up another group of students. This meant delays in getting students to and from school.
White said double runs are an emergency approach and won’t be the department’s way of life.
“It’s a commitment of mine that the efforts we’re putting in place to move forward, that we do not come back this year in the fall with the same approach,” she said. “It was just what we needed to get us through the year.”
The county schools also offered a $2,500 bonus to new and current drivers. Similar to Charlottesville, White said the additional money helped with retention but not recruitment.
At the end of the school year, the county had 10 to 15 vacant routes and 17 potential drivers in the pipeline, White said.
Albemarle County full-time bus drivers start at $17.18. Drivers that work four hours a day are eligible for full-time benefits. School bus drivers for both systems can receive free CDL training.
“If you love working with children, please come be a part of our transportation team,” White said.