Loudoun School Leaders Say Solving Busing Problems Will Cost

Members of the Loudoun County School Board learned yesterday that the division’s bus driver shortage is worse than they initially were told, and that it will take creative solutions to fix the fractured transportation system.

Kevin Lewis, assistant superintendent of Support Services, told School Board members that the number of vacant bus driver positions that he’s previously reported—between 80 and 95—doesn’t tell the full story.

That is how many drivers it would take to fill the routes on the books for this school year. But the number of routes already have been scaled back because of the severe driver shortage. That’s triggered more than 100 double runs, meaning one bus picks up and drops off kids only to turn around and do a second run before the school day starts.

Taking questions from School Board member Joy Maloney (Broad Run), Transportation Director Michael Brown said, ideally, buses would be driving 625 routes each day, not 540. So, the school system could use as many as 160 more drivers than the 1,289 who are already on the pay roll.

The School Board members who gathered around the conference table during Wednesday’s Student Support and Services Committee meeting floated a few ideas for how to attract more drivers.

Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) suggested a bonus for school system employees who recruited bus drivers, an option Lewis said his staff is pursuing.

Debbie Rose (Algonkian), who chairs the committee, said it sounded like competitive compensation and benefits, more hours, and respect from students would get more drivers to stay and others to apply.

In the past two years, 203 bus drivers, substitute drivers, trainers and attendants have left, according to the school system. In that time, 132 have been hired on. While there is a national trend of a need for more school bus drivers, Loudoun County’s shortage is worse than its neighboring school districts.

Lewis noted that, while Loudoun offers its drivers a higher hourly wages than its neighbors, it does not provide as many hours or as competitive benefits. Two years ago, Loudoun’s School Board adopted a new policy that employees must work at least 21 hours a week to qualify for health care benefits. How much the employee pays for coverage is now on a sliding scale, based on how many hours an employee works per week. Other nearby jurisdictions provide full benefits for drivers, according to Lewis.

“We’re analyzing all of this and we’ll come to you with some suggestions and changes to consider,” Lewis told the committee.

Board members also discussed how to improve routes to shorten students’ wait times and bus rides, which have reached 90 minutes one way for some. One suggestion offered by board members was to have central pickup spots throughout rural Loudoun, and fewer pickups and drop-offs at students’ doors.

Lewis said that was worth considering, but noted that if one parent on a route can’t deliver their children to the bus stop, that would likely require a second bus to provide door-to-door service.

Board members brought up several other concerns that they have been hearing from parents, including a lack of communication to families, but Lewis’ answer to almost every one of them was the need for more staff, particularly drivers.

“The driver shortage is our main cause of the transportation problems right now,” he said. “Hopefully, we can get more people in here and start solving some of these problems.”

He told them, as discussions begin on fiscal year 2018’s budget, to expect requests for more money to solve some of the busing issues.

In an interview after the meeting, Rose said she would be in favor of targeting more funds to improving bus service.

Those interested in applying to be a bus driver or attendant can learn more here.