Faced with a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, some Maryland county executives and school district leaders are pumping more money to increase drivers’ wages, whose average starting salary is $19.45 an hour, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
That average starting salary is considerably less than any other commercial driver license holder — including those who operate dump trucks or deliver for Amazon or DoorDash — said Erin Appel, who represents Maryland School Bus Contractor Association. She testified about the shortage of school bus drivers before state lawmakers in a virtual briefing on Wednesday.
Last month, bus drivers in Calvert County held a strike in protest of low wages and benefits and the school district agreed to a salary increase. “Many of the things that we’ve asked for, including the salary increase…have been turned down until the drivers walked out,” said Gayle Gustus, a school bus contractor in Calvert County. “It really is terrible that something that drastic has to occur in order for the [school] system to listen.”
But Calvert County Public Schools is not funding school bus drivers’ health care plans, she said. Usually bus drivers in Calvert County can collect unemployment benefits during the summer months, but this was particularly difficult this year with the pandemic and challenges navigating the state’s new unemployment portal, BEACON 2.0.
Around half of the 7,300 school buses in Maryland are contractor-owned; Montgomery, Frederick, Talbot and Prince George’s are the only counties that directly own and operate their school bus fleets, according to Appel. Bus contracts usually last 12 years, which is also the life of the bus, Reid said.
The Maryland State Department of Education does not have any involvement in bus driver contracts between private companies and local school districts, said Gabriel Rose, the director of pupil transportation for MSDE.
Around 75% of Maryland public school students use school buses as their main source of transportation to school, but out of 24 local school systems, Kent, Garrett and Worcester counties were the only school districts that reported they had a driver assigned for every bus route, according to MSDE.
Anne Arundel was one of the first school districts to address bus driver shortages by allocating $7.4 million for bus driver wage increases. Baltimore County Executive John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) also recently announced a $5.2 million investment in wage increases, job incentives and sign-on and retention bonuses for school bus drivers.
In Baltimore County, the additional money will come from the federal American Rescue Plan stimulus. In addition, Baltimore County government will cover the $100 background checks and other pre-employment costs such as drug testing that could cost up to $220, both of which new bus drivers traditionally pay for.
“These barriers, combined with a general shortage of individuals with [commercial driver] license, have undermined our efforts to get more drivers in the buses and more children to the classroom safely,” Olszewski said in a press conference Tuesday.
In Howard County this week, school bus drivers held a “sick-out,” leading County Executive Calvin Ball to commit $2 million in American Rescue Plan funds to help bus driver retention and hiring.
Prince George’s County Public Schools still has 200 bus routes that do not have drivers and some drivers are going to five schools a day, said Rudolph Saunders, director of transportation for PGCPS. Although the school district has hired 50 to 60 new school bus drivers this school year, they also lost around the same number of drivers, he said. PCGPS also administered random drug testing for bus drivers during the pandemic and lost a number due to those results, he said.
There is no money in the Blueprint For Maryland’s Future, the state’s sweeping decade-long education reform plan, that addresses bus driver compensation, according to John Woolums, the director of governmental relations of Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
In addition to a low starting salary amid a global pandemic, other challenges include a long wait time at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, bus contractors and local school leaders told lawmakers. It takes potential commercial vehicle drivers one to three weeks to get an appointment at the MVA, according to Paul Lebo, chief operating officer in Frederick County Public Schools.
To encourage new drivers to take the test, the MVA started offering commercial driver license (CDL) tests at several branch offices on Saturdays, a day when they are not traditionally offered, said Christine Nizer, the MVA administrator.
They have also sent letters to CDL drivers not already driving a school bus, encouraging them to consider changing careers, Nizer said. To expedite the licensing process, the MVA has also allowed some private entities to test their own employers.
However, some bigger challenges remain, such as a 25% no-show rate, which takes away appointments from drivers who may have been ready to take the test, Nizer said. There is also a high failure rate at around 50%, she continued.
“Pretty much every time we put a driver through, we’re having to schedule another test with half of those drivers to be retested,” she said.
It would be helpful if the MVA could fast track appointments so that those who failed the test could take it again the very next day, instead of waiting several weeks before the next available appointment, which increases test anxiety, Lebo said. He also encouraged a statewide campaign calling for more school bus drivers, potentially targeting retirees.
Woolums also suggested that failing a part of a test should not require a potential commercial vehicle driver to retake the entire test.
When asked what they have done to address the surge in school bus driver shortages, Rose said MSDE brought all local school leaders together in early October to share best practices and helped connect local school leaders with available federal funding that could help.
Del. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery) asked about a bill that passed this year and allows local school districts to provide transportation to students in vehicles other than buses. Rose said regulations on that will be ready later for public comment later this month and will go back for approval from the State Board of Education early next year.
But even with growing school bus driver shortages across the state, the licensing process should not be expedited at the cost of lowering safety standards, Woolums said.
“Notwithstanding the daunting challenges presented by the shortages of qualified drivers, we really want to emphasize our reluctance or refusal to…water down any of those standards as it relates to safety,” he said.