Several parents demanded the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees do something about the shortage of school bus drivers and the related problems associated with the transportation of their children to and from school.
During Monday’s meeting, the board approved a pay increase to attract and retain more drivers.
Assistant Superintendent Glenn Dedeaux told The Dispatch the district has 19 bus drivers, but it needs between 35 to 40 drivers to do the job.
Barbara Walters’ young daughter’s first day of school was Friday.
“My 5-year-old was on the bus for two hours until she was dropped off at her afterschool care program where I had been waiting for her for over half an hour,” she said. “It is terrifying to go pick up your child from an afterschool care program and find out that she is not there.”
Walters said instead of having a joyful experience, her little girl’s first impressions of the school system were shaped by fear.
“It’s kindergarten so she should be loving school,” Walters said. “It should be playing. It should be about meeting new people. It should be exciting. The bus should not be a scary thing that she has to spend two hours on. By the time she got off that bus, she was terrified. … She was humiliated.”
Walters said she understands how bus drivers are working long hours and they are driving multiple routes, and how there are no bus aides.
“The bus driver had to manage not only a screaming, terrified 5-year-old needing to go to the bathroom but also drive a bus safely,” she said. “That’s not an acceptable situation. And I’m sure that my child is not the only one who had to do that. We need to protect all of our youngest children and the older ones too.”
The crowd applauded as Walters said, “This is something that needs to be done now because clearly parents being able to drop off and pick up is not an acceptable short-term or long-term solution. And waiting for bus drivers to be hired by raising salaries. …. Let’s hire somebody! … And I don’t understand why we didn’t know about this beforehand. It’s not like it was a secret that you guys were short of bus drivers.”
Audrey Moore said Friday, her 5-year-old grandson got on the bus at 2:50 p.m. and he rode the bus until he was picked up at the high school four hours later.
“He was on that bus — no one knew where he was. We couldn’t get in touch with Sale Elementary, the bus station or nothing,” she said. “That’s terrifying as well.”
Moore said the bus didn’t pick up her high school-age son until around 9 a.m. She goes to work long before sunrise and doesn’t get home until after 5:30 p.m., so when her son called her, she wasn’t able to help, she said.
“There’s no way possible that I can take my child to school,” she said. “My son didn’t get home until 6:30 p.m.”
CMSD board president Yvonne Cox listened to many parents share their frustrations and concerns.
“I understand what all of you all are saying. I do,” she said. “What I can say for myself is that I understand where you are, I regret that this is happening to you, to our kids who are staying on the bus so long. It’s hard when a parent tells you their 5-year-old stayed on the bus — that’s embarrassing and how it’s taking so long for your kids to come home because of our shortage of bus drivers. But what I can say is that everything they bring to us as a board, we will support it. That’s the part we play in this. We will support what our superintendent recommends to us for our approval to help us throughout this situation in any way we can.”
Drivers receive immediate pay hike
The board approved a higher starting wage of $15 per hour to attract new drivers — up from $12 an hour. The pay increase will take effect immediately.
It also approved a new pay scale of up to $18 per hour for more tenured drivers. Also, drivers will be paid for more time on the road by working at least five hours a day during a shift split between morning and afternoon bus runs, up from four and a half hours per day last year.
“Hopefully the raise will help,” Dedeaux said. “Better pay was one of the things that the drivers were mentioning that there was a need for a raise.”
Transportation crisis in the making
Dedeaux explained to The Dispatch other reasons why the district is facing bussing problems. For example, he said there are five magnet elementary schools which draw students from all over the city rather than the neighborhoods closest to these schools, so this contributes to the longer drive times.
“You have to go throughout the whole district to cover all the elementary schools,” Dedeaux said. “You may have three buses covering one elementary school — those three buses have to cover the whole district when they are trying to pick up students, so that’s our problem.”
Dedeaux told The Dispatch the district needed fewer bus drivers in 2020-21 because the COVID-19 pandemic had limited schools to hybrid instruction — where students rotated days they learned virtually and in person. And school transportation contracted to a private company in past years, but that system changed to an in-house system last year because of the pandemic, he said.
Dedeaux said the district employed 25 drivers during the 2020-21 school year, but needs more drivers now that the school system has returned to full in-person instruction.
Dedeaux said during the past several months, the administration has been making an active effort to recruit additional drivers. He remains optimistic that in the weeks ahead, the district will be able to attract and retain drivers.
“We’re trying to recruit drivers, but just like anything else, it is a tough job and we are just trying to get it filled. We need drivers,” he said.