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County schools: Regional solution needed to address bus driver shortage

The wheels on the bus won’t go ‘round as often or as far unless Albemarle County school officials can find more than a dozen drivers.

Albemarle County is still looking for 14 bus drivers to take students to and from school, officials told the School Board this week. Overall, the school division’s transportation department has 37 vacancies.

As school divisions and transit agencies across the country struggle to fill vacancies, county schools Superintendent Matthew Haas told the School Board that a new approach will be needed.

“We have to focus on restructuring transportation to lower expectations,” Haas said, adding that the pandemic exacerbated a long-standing problem. “For many years, we tried to pretend or maybe think that some force of nature will bring us bus drivers.”

Mother Nature has not cooperated, however, and Haas said that county will need to manage parents’ expectations for the transportation services it can provide. Division leadership has talked with the transportation department about programmatic changes for the coming school year, Haas told board members.

“There’s going to be longer wait times,” he said. “There are going to be double backs. We just need to let people know that that’s the way it’s going to be and not pretend it’s not going to be that way. Then, they’ll have to make choices about transportation.”

Meanwhile, the city school system also is rethinking how to get students to school. With only seven bus drivers on board for the next school year, Charlottesville recently announced it would expand school walk zones. That means an additional 700 students will not ride the bus and must walk, bike or get rides to school. Transportation will still be provided to those with special needs.

The city school division contracts with Charlottesville Area Transit to provide transportation for students. The city needs at least 24 school bus drivers and had 22 this spring. That number dropped to seven following a series of resignations and retirements.

On Friday at Friendship Court, Charlottesville schools Superintendent Royal Gurley Jr. met with families to discuss the change and answer questions. Those who live in Friendship Court will have to walk to Clark Elementary and Buford Middle schools.

Gurley said the community needs to work together to ensure students can get to school safely. That includes providing resources to students such as raincoats and boots.

“This is not one of those times where we can just walk away from one another,” Gurley said. “We do need each other in this moment.”

Kim Powell, the division’s chief operations officer, said families in the expanded walk zones will be sent a letter by the end of this month with details about the change, suggested walking routes, and crossing guards.

Buford is the most affected by the expanded walk zones while Greenbrier Elementary is the least, Powell said.

Powell also told families that with seven drivers on board, the school division will likely have a waitlist for the bus seats that are available.

In the last week, parents and community members started advocating for safety improvements along school walking routes. City Council will likely discuss those requests at its Monday meeting. The school division also is hiring a team of crossing guards that will be strategically placed throughout the city.

“This is not a punishment,” Gurley said of the need to walk to school. “If we can build up safety mechanisms in our community, and we can provide the resources, then this is the long-term viable solution.”

Bus Driver Pay and Benefits• Charlottesville bus drivers make between $16.51 and $18.32 an hour to start, though many typically start at $17.99 an hour. Full-time healthcare benefits are available. Apply here. • Albemarle County full-time bus drivers start at $17.18. Drivers that work four hours a day are eligible for full-time benefits. Apply here. • School bus drivers for both systems receive free CDL training.

Other options and vacancies

Hass told county school board members Thursday that addressing the driver shortage is a long-term problem and will need to be resolved regionally, “mot just with school systems competing with each other and not sharing services.”

Haas said he recently met with representatives from the city schools, Charlottesville Area Transit, and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District to start talking about ways to work together. He said he agreed to participate in a comprehensive study with Charlottesville and Albemarle County to find ways to work together.

Board member Kate Acuff mentioned during the discussion that she had seen “some pretty well-produced commercials” for city bus drivers and wanted to know what the county’s plan was.

“I know it’s a chronic issue across the country, but we actually need to have someone pick up our kids,” she said.

The county is working on an advertising plan, said Clare Keiser, the division’s assistant superintendent for organizational development and human resource leadership.

“The Charlottesville advertising is tremendous and we need to get out there and do that type of thing,” Keiser said.

Beyond transportation, Albemarle County still needs to hire 65 teachers for the coming school year. Keiser said that figure is one par with previous school years. So far, 131 teachers have been hired.

Keiser cautioned during her update that the numbers provided are tentative.

The division is struggling to fill vacancies in math, special education, and English as a second language. Her goal is to have positions filled by the beginning of the school year.

In support positions such as transportation and child nutrition, Keiser said the division was challenged by a low volume and quality of applicants.

“We only need one right person in the pool, but we need to get that person in the pool,” she said.

The division is working to fill 15 vacancies in child nutrition, 11 in building services and 11 in the Extended Day Enrichment program, Keiser said.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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