Superintendent Eric Williams described the steps he wants to take to attract and retain bus drivers as “an assertive approach.”
“The reason it’s assertive is because we have significant challenges,” he told the School Board Thursday evening. “It is not without hesitation that we propose this.”
The Loudoun school system has 114 vacant driver positions, which has meant more stress on the Transportation Department’s staff and longer bus rides for students.
As part of his proposed budget for next fiscal year, Williams, along with Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Kevin Lewis, is recommending an increase in drivers’ pay and hours. Coupled with the School Board’s decision last month to decrease the cost of what drivers and other part-time employees pay for health insurance, the changes will mean drivers will bring home more per paycheck.
“This will be a huge help in recruiting we believe. … It could help us solve this driver shortage,” Lewis said.
He is recommending bumping drivers up one grade on the salary scale, from level 11 to 12. For new drivers, that would mean a pay increase from $18.10 to $19.32 per hour, and veteran drivers would get a raise from $34.18 to $36.60 per hour. Lewis noted that Loudoun school bus drivers’ pay ranks fourth when compared with five nearby school systems in Northern Virginia.
He also wants to give drivers a few more hours per week. He is suggested that drivers who now work fewer than five hours per day get contracts that guarantee at least five hours a day, and those who typically work between five and six hours a day be guaranteed six hours a day.
Under his plan, drivers would also get a $500 bonus for referring new hires, and the new hire would get $500 if he or she stays more than 90 days. In all, what Lewis called a driver “recruiting and retention” effort would cost just less than $2.4 million.
He is also recommending that money from 20.5 full-time equivalent vacant bus driver positions be repurposed to create several new positions to support transportation operations. Those include four transportation coordinators, two payroll specialists, one information systems specialist and an area transportation supervisor, among five other positions.
School Board members commended Lewis and Williams for their ideas to bring on new drivers, and keep the ones they have. Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles) noted that the Support Services Department, and especially transportation, were targeted for funding cuts during some of the tightest budget years. “I know your department has suffered,” he said.
Debbie Rose (Algonkian) called the changes “legitimate and worthy priorities.”
“I think a lot of things you proposed will go to the customer satisfaction issues that we heard a lot about this year,” she added. “I look forward to not having those at the beginning of next school year.”
Lewis delivered good and bad news about the driver shortage: He said more than 320 attended an information seminar for prospective bus drivers and bus attendants—much more than he expected. But the hiring is not keeping up with the demand. There are 500 more student riders than there were at the beginning of the school year, bringing the total to roughly 50,000. “So we’re not making up ground yet on the driver shortage. Not yet,” Lewis added.
The budget Lewis drafted for Support Services in total requests $161.2 million, up 12.2 percent from the current fiscal year. The departments of construction, planning, safety and security, transportation, and facilities fall under the Support Services Department. Other highlights of that budget include a request for $5.3 million to purchase 36 more buses and 20 light fleet vehicles and $1.7 million to replace part of schools’ security systems.
It also calls for a 5-cent increase on students’ lunches. That would bring the price to $3.05 at elementary schools and $3.15 at middle and high schools. Lewis said that, while participation is up 6 percent for lunch and 31 percent for breakfast this year, the School Nutrition Services Department, which supports itself through meal sales, is seeing a rise in food prices and health insurance costs for employees. Plus, he noted, the school system dropped the price by 10 cents two years ago.
The proposed budget also includes $200,000 to convert the Academy of Science space housed at Dominion High School into classrooms. The board has not yet taken a vote on what should go in that space, once the Academy of Science moves to the Academies of Loudoun campus in 2018, but the staff has floated the idea of a turning into a school system welcome center, space for the English Language Learners bridge program or for the adult education program.