A Moore County school bus approaches a student.

A Moore County school bus approaches a student. (File Photograph/The Pilot)

For the last few years, Moore County Schools has struggled to operate bus routes that get students to and from school efficiently and in a timely fashion.

Students at schools around the county have experienced lengthy bus rides and irregular schedules as a result, especially in the first weeks of each school year.

It’s not that there isn’t adequate funding for transportation, though the schools have to demonstrate efficient operations to merit full state funding. Rather, the missing link in the equation is an ample roster of bus drivers.

On Monday, the school board approved a new policy requiring support staff — custodians, cafeteria assistants and teacher assistants — to obtain a bus license and be available to drive routes.

“As we all know, we’ve had a huge shortage in trying to recruit bus drivers. We’ve talked to a number of other school districts as to how they’re recruiting,” said board member Betty Wells-Brown. “In talking to several other school districts, one had been using a policy similar to this for 20 years, and other one about 10 years, and they’ve had little to no difficulty recruiting bus drivers by working with their teacher assistants, their custodians and their child nutrition assistants.”

The schools have tried other methods of bolstering its available driver pool over the years. Buses bearing “Drivers Wanted” banners have been parked around Moore County. In the 2017-2018 school year, the district allocated more than $136,000 in new state funding to increasing bus driver’s hourly pay based on how many years they’ve spent behind the wheel.

Moore County Schools bus drivers now make $13.54 an hour starting out. That rate increases 20 cents with each year of experience up to 25 years. But the work is only a few hours each day.

Part of the decline in available drivers is related to the reduction of teacher assistants, who commonly do double duty behind the wheel, in the schools. Cuts in state funding for teacher assistants have driven the schools to cut them from second-grade classes and reduce them in first grade. The district also suffers from a lack of backup drivers who can step in when a regular driver can’t cover their route.

Wells-Brown said that she thinks the policy will have positive side effects as school employees will be spending more time around students.

“People have found there’s some extra money coming in, so that they don’t have to work a second job,” said Wells-Brown. “They’re finding that people get to know the children from different venues, they know the parents because they drive the bus route, they can help the teachers know what’s going on, so it’s a win-win situation.”

Based on enrollment projections for this fall, the schools project that they will run 118 routes throughout the district. Currently, they only have 107 drivers signed up — and typically lose a few in the first few weeks of the school year.

The new requirement that school support staff be dually qualified as bus drivers will not apply to existing employees. But teacher assistants, cafeteria assistants and custodians hired on Aug. 1 or later will have to complete the first driver certification class offered after they start, and obtain a bus license within 90 days of the class.

“Bus driving duty shall be considered an essential function of these classified positions, and these employees must sign a bus driving agreement as a condition of new or continued employment,” the policy reads.

Transportation has been one of the key concerns for those who oppose Moore County Schools’ plans to shift attendance lines to reflect the four new elementary schools opening between now and 2021. The school board hopes the new policy will allow the district to smooth out its existing routes and build up a pool of backup drivers before those changes take effect.

“In the next couple of years, opening up four new schools and redistricting … we’re hoping we’ll need more bus drivers too because children will be taking buses because of shorter routes,” Wells-Brown said.

Contact Mary Kate Murphy at (910) 693-2479 or mkmurphy@thepilot.com.

(4) comments

Brenda Burt

Driving a bus load of children is a huge responsibility, I am a former school bus driver. I volunteered as my daughters volleyball and basketball team driver, donating the money back to the team and those girls were awesome. It was a pleasure to drive them to games. later I drove for a local school. I think every bus should have another adult on board to keep order on the bus. When a driver takes their eye off the road for a second, an accident can happen. It’s impossible to drive and keep your eyes on the kids too, sometimes fights happen, sometimes kids throw things at the driver. Sometimes someone tried to open the emergency exit, the list goes on and on. If there was another adult on board I feel that more folks would go back driving again. But if you get a bus load of rowdy kids that won’t listen and follow the rules, it’s impossible to drive safely. And you can’t just ignore them and keep your eyes on the road when someone is screaming and crying. You are responsible for their safety and that means preventing someone from throat punching others. I know you can stop the bus and make the call, which results in kids being 2 hours late getting home. By then parents are frantic and calling the school. It’s a tough job, I wouldn’t do it again.

Conrad Meyer

Very insightful Brenda, thanks for sharing. No wonder why MCS can't find drivers, I wouldn't drive for them either. By the way, back in the day, if you threw something at the driver or started a fight, you would be banned from riding the bus for the rest of the school year.

Brian Hicks

It is a tough job, and I would expect this to weaken the already weak (in some schools) TA pool. No chance in heck Id be forced nicely to do a bus route after a trying day in the classroom. I would politely tell Dr Bobsy to kiss my arse, Ill seek employment elsewhere.

Not so long ago, seniors did the driving and earned good money. My tough bus driver in rural Kentucky had a simple solution for discipline issues. She’d stop the bus and make the unruly kids get out and walk. I don’t recall an instance where this was a problem for her. You did not mess with Mrs. Cox.

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