Two months into the school year, phones at Loudoun school administration offices continue to light up with complaints from parents about late buses, long rides, and aging buses breaking down while students are on board.
Administrators have pointed to a severe bus driver shortage as a major factor. The division has 552 bus drivers and is short between 80 and 95 drivers, depending on the day. School systems nationwide are having a tougher time attracting people to the bus driver’s seat—a part-time job that can be stressful and doesn’t pay much.
In Loudoun, pay starts at $18.10 an hour, and most contracts are for four hours a day. Drivers start as early as 5 a.m., work for a couple of hours, have a few hours off, and then return for an afternoon shift.
“It’s hard to find people who can do that split shift,” Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Kevin Lewis said. “This is a demanding job. … It takes a special person to drive a school bus.”
Figures from neighboring jurisdictions show that the driver shortage is worse in Loudoun. Prince William County Public Schools has 14 vacancies out of 760 total positions. Fairfax County Public Schools has 75 vacancies, with 1,289 drivers currently on the payroll.
Many drivers say Loudoun’s shortage is a symptom of a larger problem within the school system’s Transportation Department. Loudoun Now spoke to a dozen drivers who cited low wages and high stress, turnover in leadership, and a lack of respect as reasons so many have resigned or retired.
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.
Jennifer O’Dell, who has been driving buses in Loudoun for about 13 years, said the pay, the rising cost of insurance and an overall feeling that she and her colleagues are not appreciated has her looking for other jobs.
“They’ve given us fliers to recruit people,” she said. “No, I can’t recruit people—not in good conscience.”
Smaller Pay Checks
For a majority of drivers, the pay increases the School Board has approved in recent years has not kept pace with increasing health care costs and required contributions to the Virginia Retirement System.
Sandy Ashby, a Loudoun school bus driver for 39 years, was brought to tears when asked about her job earlier this week. “I love it. I really do love it. But it’s becoming harder to stay.”
She showed Loudoun Now a pay stub from September 2006 and a pay stub from this month. She brings home $90 less per month now. “Meanwhile, everything else becomes more expensive. People can’t afford to live on that.”
Stacey Ahmed said she’s also taking home less per pay check than when she was first hired 10 years ago. “I get up at 5 in the morning to drive the most precious cargo in Loudoun County, and this is how we’re treated,” she said. “The kids’ smiles make the job worth it, but the disrespect we are given is so sad.”
Both Ashby and Ahmed have opted for the more expensive of two health care options. The school system used to subsidize the costlier plan, called Point of Service, so that employees paid the same premiums no matter which of the plans they chose. The School Board changed that in 2013 when it was faced with finding several million dollars in savings. It’s estimated the change has saved the school system $8 million a year. Employees who switched to the less expensive Open Access Plus plan actually have lower premiums, but premiums went up for those who stayed on the costlier POS plan.
The family plan Ahmed has costs $2,079.84 per month. The school system covers $1,479.34 and she pays $600.50. Her office visit co-pays will rise to $50 come January. “When I first started, I was paying less than $300 a month for a family of five and co-pays were $5,” she said.
It’s a similar story for 13-year driver O’Dell, of Sterling Park, whose take home pay is less than $200 a week. Just more than $300 of her bi-weekly paycheck goes to the POS health care plan. She said she opts for the more expensive option because her husband is border line diabetic and has high blood pressure. “Heaven forbid something happens. I’d rather have it covered rather than trying to figure out how to pay another bill,” she said.
A few years ago, as the School Board looked for more savings in its budget, it floated the idea of cutting health care benefits for part-time employees. But Lewis told them that would exclude most bus drivers from benefits, and as it is, the division has a hard time attracting enough drivers. In 2014, the board instead 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.
Lack of Respect,
Lack of Accountability
The Loudoun Education Association received so many complaints from bus drivers this year that in May it formed a transportation caucus with the goal of better communicating concerns and possible solutions with school system administrators. The association is an advocacy group for the county’s school employees, and about half of the county’s 600 bus drivers are members.
“The words they use to describe how they feel are ‘second class citizens,’” said Christy Sullivan, UniServ director at the LEA. “They feel like they are the lowest on the totem pole and they’re trying to dig themselves out of the dirt. I’m not sure the school division is taking this serious yet.”
LEA received a slew of complaints from drivers and others in the Transportation Department after C-4 explosive material was discovered on a school bus at the school system’s main garage in March following a CIA training exercise. Sullivan said employees were told to stay on site while a bomb squad swept the facility.
“Any other worksite or school would’ve been evacuated,” Sullivan said. Some of the employees who were told to stay put were military veterans battling PTSD, she added. “Now they’re sitting between bomb material and fuel tanks being told you can’t leave. We had people quit over that. They’re in therapy. They could not walk back in that building.”
Another frustration for veteran drivers was the recent news that the retirement bonus for longtime drivers that was once $5,000 had been cut in half.
“It’s one thing on top of another and now they wonder why they can’t hire anybody,” Sullivan said.
Several employees said that some of the more senior drivers were fired or forced to retire in recent years, as the directors in charge changed and looked to trim budgets.
Danielle McGuinn drove a bus for Loudoun schools for 15 years before she was fired in June 2015. She said she had a perfect driving record and not one complaint from a parent. Alvin Hampton, transportation director for five years, visited her bus twice to thank her in person for a job well done. Months after he retired in September 2014, McGuinn’s evaluations stated that she was not meeting job requirements and she was let go at the end of the school year.
McGuinn listed the names of eight other veteran drivers who she said were fired or forced to retire that same year. Several declined requests for an interview from Loudoun Now for fear of retribution.
McGuinn said that she’s not speaking up to get her job back; she makes more and works better hours now as a bookkeeper. But she wants to shine a light on the issue to help other drivers and Loudoun students who are ultimately effected. She said there needs to be accountability for transportation supervisors and a less subjective evaluation process.
“They are forcing people out on personal vendettas and it’s going unchecked,” McGuinn said. “Parents are calling, they’re frustrated, and not one of them knows they fired some of their best drivers.”
Lewis said he could not speak to specific personnel issues, but said there is no truth to any claims that drivers were let go to save money. “No one has ever been removed from a position based on trying to reduce the budget. … Our focus has been to get drivers in the seats.”
The improved economy has opened up more options for certified licensed drivers, he later said, including higher paying jobs like driving tractor trailers.
Solving the Problem
School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) saw firsthand what’s prompting some of the complaints from bus drivers and families when he rode a school bus last Wednesday. He boarded the bus at 7:15 a.m. in Taylorstown and arrived at Woodgrove High School at 8:44 a.m.
“It was an hour and a half—and that was on a morning without traffic or any accidents. These kids are arriving late at school, and that’s concerning,” he said. “Apparently, it’s worse in the afternoon.”
DeKenipp recently met with new Transportation Director Michael Brown to tell him that he needs to let the School Board know what it will take to fix the problem. He realizes that improvements will likely take more money, but he is willing to make it a priority when budget talks begin in January.
“We’ve got to hear from them what the needs are. These parents aren’t asking for much; they’re asking to get their kids to school in under an hour. At the end of the day their concerns are all valid,” he said. “There are solutions. We all need to work together to make sure we solve this problem.”
Brown recently sent an automated call to parents encouraging them to consider driving a bus, and 90 people responded to the call. And so far this month, eight new hires have entered the training program, which takes four to six weeks to complete.
In an interview Tuesday, Lewis listed specific changes he plans to recommend for next fiscal year’s budget in hopes of attracting and retaining drivers. He and Brown will likely propose changes to the salary structure, the benefits packages and the length of the contract day for new hires.
“We need to make driving for LCPS more attractive,” he said.
That means creating an atmosphere of mutual respect, he added. “Our goal is to showcase the profession and let our drivers know how important they are and how much we appreciate what they do every day.”