District continues bus driver battle

Xavier Smith • Aug 31, 2017 at 2:38 PM

Wilson County Schools continue to battle with a bus driver shortage as some schools experienced cancelled routes this week.

Jennifer Johnson, Wilson County Schools spokesperson, said Southside, Carroll-Oakland and West elementary schools, as well as West Wilson Middle School and Lebanon High School, each had one route cancelled Thursday due to the shortage.

Jerry Partlow, Wilson County Schools transportation director, said the district has 439 route assignments each day, which include regular morning and afternoon routes, special needs morning and afternoon routes and midday routes.

“For example, a typical Mt. Juliet W.A. Wright [Elementary School] bus will have a morning route, afternoon route, and then the same bus will do a Mt. Juliet High School route in the morning and afternoon. We consider this four-route assignments, so it would be four of the 439,” Partlow said. “A Lebanon High School bus will have an a.m. and a p.m. route. We consider that two-route assignments.”

Johnson said other factors played into the shortage, as well.

“We had one driver quit Friday, and we had to let one go, because we discovered they had an accident while driving a bus in another county. We also have three other drivers on medical leave,” said Johnson, who said the district needs about 12 drivers.

Johnson said she received information Wednesday about ways the district looks to address the shortage, including offering morning and afternoon only shifts for new drivers.

“We think it’ll help attract drivers who work other jobs or people who want to earn a little extra money. We think it’ll also help teachers who want to earn a little more, as well,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright received information from another school district in the country about one way they’re addressing driver shortages – law enforcement.

“They partner with their local law enforcement departments to have some of them drive school buses. It’s a great way for them to earn extra money, and the district said discipline problems on the buses diminished,” Johnson said.

The Wilson County school board received input from district bus drivers earlier this year about causes and solutions for the shortage. Issues raised included a lack of respect from students and parents, inconsistency in handling reports of incidents, the split-shift format that drivers adhere to and driver pay.

Wilson County Deputy Director of Schools Mickey Hall highlighted some changes the district made earlier this year to entice drivers, such as paid training at $8.50 per hour. However, he said on some occasions, drivers work and quit after the first day after realizing the scope of the work and the atmosphere on buses.

He also said background checks, drug screens and other Tennessee Department of Transportation requirements deter potential drivers. Wright said other jobs such as commercial driving that require the same qualifications have attracted drivers.

The school board also approved a $5 per hour increase in June for field trip and athletic event bus drivers to make their payment closer to their regular pay, which averages $16 per hour.

Hall said the change stemmed from conversations with bus drivers.

The Wilson County Budget Committee took no action on the district’s needs assessment list this year during the budget process. The list included a recommended $2 raise for bus drivers, about $708,000, which included benefits.

The bus driver raise, along with teacher raises, were placed on the needs assessment list rather than the district’s $141-million budget.

Hall said most expenses in the budget were relative to new staff, the opening of Springdale Elementary School in Mt. Juliet, teacher pay, infrastructure and more.

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