Driving a school bus is important work with a lot of responsibility. Drivers have to get students to and from school, safely and on time. The hours are odd, a lot of patience is required and the pay isn't great. All reasons CMS officials often struggle to fill the positions, especially this year.
CMS, like many districts nationwide, struggles to find enough bus drivers each fall. A lot of last minute resignations come in at that time. But this past fall was particularly tough. CMS added routes to accommodate more magnet and career programs.
Two weeks before school started this year, CMS had 95 bus driver vacancies. That’s compared to 33 a year earlier. Given the vacancies, some drivers had to double up on routes and former drivers, with desk jobs, were assigned routes. Parents complained about overcrowded buses and students getting home late at night.
In August, CMS raised starting pay for bus drivers nearly a dollar to $12.14 to attract drivers. Now, all but 10 positions are filled and district officials have started to recruit retired teachers and hold monthly job fairs to increase the pool.
“It’s a challenge to fill open positions,” said Devery Peterson who oversees bus drivers as CMS's director of safety and quality management. “We’re advertising through the job fairs, word-of-mouth, anything we can do to get the word out.”
During the job fair, Devery and others answered applicants’ questions with computers nearby so they could apply immediately.
“We’re trying to start now to get the interest up so we can have people fill our bus classes in April and May. We’ll have classes throughout the summer and will be in a constant hiring and training mode between now and August so we will have a driver for every bus when school starts,” Devery said.
For 32 years, the district has been able to depend on bus driver Felicia Brown, who takes a lot of pride in her job. Her route starts at 5:30 a.m., she goes on break around 9:15 a.m. and comes back at 1:30 for her evening route that ends at 5:30. She loves her job and doesn’t mind the odd hours. Some drivers use their off hours to work second jobs, but not Brown.
“I’ve never had a part-time job. I go home, take a nap, clean up, shop and do whatever,” Brown said. “Sometimes, a couple of drivers will get together and do lunch or breakfast."
Brown became a bus driver in 1985 when her son started school. She didn’t want him to be driven by high school students. That was common in CMS and many districts in North and South Carolina until shortly after she started driving.
Brown is now one of more than 1,000 CMS drivers but her longevity is not the norm. She sees a lot of people come and go each year. The turnover rate of CMS bus drivers is about 12 percent. She thinks some leave because they don’t have the temperament to deal with students.
“You gotta have patience because no two children are alike,” Brown said. “You have a good kid here, not so good kid there, but if you work with this kid enough he’ll come around or she’ll come around, but you gotta have a lot of patience.”
People with patience, a diploma or GED and a good driving record are what CMS officials seek. You can't have a speeding ticket within the last year, none at all in a school zone and you have to be at least 18 years old.
About 35 people showed up all day for the job fair, lower than officials hoped. Most were African-American and young, like Syaira Johnson. She works for a mail-order pharmacy and likes the split morning and afternoon shifts.
“Flexibility is important because I can get things done during the day when it comes to my life,” Johnson said.
Most drivers don’t get paid for the summer vacation months, unless they're lucky enough to be hired to drive students attending summer programs. That concerned some people at the fair. But not George Robinson, an unemployed father of two.
“Nine months is better than no months a year and it’s a great opportunity to get your CDL and that stays for a lifetime,” Robinson said.
Once some drivers get that commercial driver’s license, they soon move on to higher paying jobs with CATS or trucking operations. Even long-term CMS drivers only make slightly over $16 an hour. Drivers do get health benefits, but Clairsean Alexander-Floyd, a mother of two, left when she heard the starting pay.
“The hourly was not what I’d need presently,” she said. “Presently I make several dollars more than their starting salary and this wouldn’t work for my life.”
CMS has hired a few applicants through the job fairs and Peterson says they are in good shape now. But more drivers may be needed next fall to accommodate the first phase of the new student assignment plan which focuses on magnet programs. Peterson says these days they are always in a recruiting and hiring mode for drivers.