by Dr. Robert Luebke
Senior Fellow, Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Parents of Wake County Public School students know well the realities of the school bus driver shortage. It means getting an unexpected call or late notification that no bus driver is available to pick up or drop off your child. Those headaches encourage flexibility. They are also daily reminders that despite the state raising the starting minimum salary to $15 an hour as part of last year’s state budget, the problem is still very much with us.
Can school districts and parents resolve this problem? Yes.
Wake County has or will receive $433.4 million in federal covid money. To date WCPSS has spent only about 45 percent of the funds and currently has $238.1 million in unspent funds. Instead of continually saying the state must provide more funding to solve the crisis, WCPSS should do what can it do. Sixty-nine percent of the money WCPSS has received for covid funding has been spent on salaries, bonus, and supplemental pay. WCPSS certainly seems willing to provide bonuses and salary supplements –for some people
While money is important, its only part of the problem. Of course, drivers deserve a fair wage. However, districts with higher pay levels like Charlotte- Mecklenburg and Durham, still have driver shortages. Other factors like safety, benefits, retention as well as the time it takes to get certified are also parts of this problem. The pandemic was merely the event that exposed those problems.
If we’re truly honest, we’ll see this problem as more than a school bus driver shortage. We’ll see it as a transportation problem. We’ll see that the current system of transporting children is outdated, inflexible and inefficient.
Over the last couple of years parents have heard the sentence, “If possible, parents should arrange their own transportation for their students.” a few too many times.
They’ve been forced to think outside the box. They’ve formed carpools, changed work and childcare schedules, asked kids to walk or bike to school or simply found other ways to get to school when bus drivers didn’t show at the regular stops.
Is it too much to ask that states and school districts demonstrate the same creativity? Why can’t states allow districts to take multiple transportation options to school such as vans, taxicabs, or free access to publics transit? About twenty states allow districts to contract with transportation network companies designed to transport children. It’s worked out well for many and these contracts are often at far less cost to taxpayers. I believe WCPSS has contracted with private vendors for years to help serve the transportation needs of special needs students. That model – or similar models like it – might be worth a second look.
Alleviating the the bus driver problem, will take money. Solving the transportation problem will take creativity.