JCPS struggles with bus driver shortage, absences
February 17, 2016
Jefferson County Public Schools' bus drivers are stretched so thin that there have been five times in the past month where, even with subs and creative re-routing, some students did not get rides to classes.
While the state's largest school district normally has enough drivers for its 954 bus routes every day, JCPS is short 54 drivers that it uses as fill-ins for the inevitable number of employees that call in sick or have a day off, said Chief Operations Officer Michael Raisor.
That means JCPS has been dipping more than usual into its substitute bus driver pool – a pool that has been exhausted several times in recent weeks as more bus drivers than usual call in sick.
As a result, on five occasions so far this year, some alternative school students have been left without their normal bus to and from school. JCPS officials said those students were notified that they could either ride another bus or would have to catch a TARC bus to and from classes.
"Until a couple weeks ago, this had never happened," Raisor said.
He said JCPS has tried a number of techniques to try to mitigate the problem, including combining bus routes, doing double runs and putting employees who are not bus drivers but who have the proper driving credentials onto routes. And Raisor said he's looking at other short-term options to try to ensure that routes don't have to get canceled.
Raisor said the alternative school routes were the ones that were chosen to be canceled because they caused the "least disruption," saying those routes are often fairly short and have fewer riders on them, and that those riders are often of high school age and therefore more independent.
"We're talking about a complete worst-case scenario," Raisor said. "We don't like the decisions we're having to make."
When asked if JCPS considered the fact that alternative school students are among some of the most at-risk in the district, Raisor said this group was chosen as the first to lose bus routes in part because many of those students already have "contingency plans in place when they miss the bus or can't take the bus," such as when the student is suspended from the bus.
Raisor also said Minor Daniels Academy and Breckinridge Metro High already routinely hand out TARC bus passes to students.
JCPS board member Lisa Willner said she is "troubled that some of our most academically vulnerable students have not been provided transportation to school."
But she said the district has told her it's working to address any bus driver shortages and is making plans to ensure that routes are covered.
Neither JCPS nor the teamsters union said they know why absences are higher this year than last year.
Last school year, the average number of bus driver absences in December was about 108 drivers per day. This
December, the average was about 132 drivers per day. Similarly, last January averaged about 104 driver absences a day while this past month averaged about 135 absences per day.
Both Raisor and local teamsters union President John Stovall said the higher absences may be tied to the same reason the district has more trouble finding full-time drivers: an improved economy.
"When the economy is better, being a school bus driver is a lot less appealing," Raisor said. "You lose a large chunk of people who are just looking for a job. ... When the economy is down, you have more people who are willing to apply to be bus drivers."
The starting pay for a JCPS full-time bus driver is $16.58 an hour.
Stovall said being a bus driver is a tough gig, with split shifts leaving odd gaps in people's days and an escrow pay setup – which spreads a driver's pay across an entire school year but decreases the average paycheck size – that irks some drivers.
"The behavior problems (of some students acting up on the buses) is the icing on the cake," Stovall said.
Board member Linda Duncan said JCPS has to make the job more attractive. She said that means better pay, work schedules and working conditions by hiring more bus monitors and doing more to enforce the code of conduct on buses.
"We have squeezed all we can get from our drivers," Duncan said. "Today's students and bus rides are not your grandparents' students and bus rides."
Raisor said that, in the short term, JCPS is going to try a new tactic to ensure all students get transportation by asking school staff who have commercial driver's licenses to consider running a route to and from their schools.
Raisor said JCPS middle and high schools have activity buses as well as someone who can drive those activity buses. Often they are used for afterschool practices or field trips. He said he'd like to see if some of those activity bus drivers would volunteer to help out until JCPS is able to increase its numbers of full-time drivers.
"I've got our compounds looking and identifying schools where it would really help out if a person could drive a route at that school," Raisor said. He said JCPS would not put those drivers on a complicated or long route, noting that the average JCPS bus route is less than half an hour.
But he said any volunteers "will be doing us a huge favor. They'll be helping out the district."
By Allison Ross, www.courier-journal.com