Ninety-one percent of school districts nationwide report having a school bus driver shortage, according to 2018 data from School Bus Fleet, a school transportation publication. Additionally, 31% of districts report severe or desperate shortages.

“The reason that the public does not realize that we’re short of drivers is because of the teamwork,” said Deidra Oliver, assistant director at Fort Bend ISD’s Hodges Bend bus terminal.

FBISD is one of thousands of districts nationwide struggling to fill open school bus driver positions.

“It’s a statewide problem, not unique to any district,” said Amy Campbell, director of the Texas Association of School Boards human resources services.

Every day, FBISD is responsible for transporting 30,000 students, or 40% of the district’s student population, to school. Of the 305 school bus routes the district operates, there are 33 open routes—routes without a permanent, full-time driver, FBISD Chief Operations Officer Oscar Perez said.

An internal audit of FBISD’s transportation function found the district had 19 open routes in December 2018, meaning in the last 10 months, FBISD’s driver shortage has worsened.

But, open routes do not tell the whole story: The audit identified FBISD struggles with driver absenteeism and an ineffective part-time driver system.

Greg Gibson, the president of Gibson Consulting Group—the organization that conducted the audit—presented its findings to the district’s board of trustees Aug. 12.

“This is a common problem,” Gibson said during the meeting. “Believe it or not, there are actually school systems that have a worse problem than you do, but that doesn’t make it any better for you.”

Scope of the shortage

The school bus driver shortage is evident in a variety of statistics, including open routes, vacancy rates and absentee rates, Gibson said to the board.

The district employs 272 permanent bus drivers, 33 short of how many the district needs to be fully staffed.

In addition to the district being 33 full-time drivers short, the audit found on an average day in fall 2018, 21 bus drivers were absent. When there are high levels of absenteeism, the district fills open routes with part-time drivers and other transportation personnel, according to the audit.

The district employs 70 part-time drivers. These drivers do not have set routes or drive every day, but come in and drive routes when they can, Perez said. According to Perez, on a typical day, the district uses 20 part-time drivers.

After using available part-time drivers, remaining open routes are filled by other FBISD transportation staff, such as mechanics.

At the Lake Olympia terminal, the audit found most mechanics are required to drive a route three to four days a week. The audit indicates this interrupts maintenance of the fleet and is more costly to the district, as mechanics are paid more than drivers and often must work overtime to complete their assigned shop duties.

Due to a severe shortage five years ago, FBISD now contracts out some of its transportation needs to GoldStar Transit Inc. GoldStar operates an additional 60 routes on top of the 306 operated by FBISD. Three GoldStar routes do not have a full-time, permanent driver.

“All bus routes are filled every day,” Perez said in an email. “Probably our worst days are when other activities like field trips interfere with our route times or when we [have] high absenteeism.”

Staffing challenges

Cathy Manely, a FBISD bus driver of 25 years, said the biggest challenge is inconsistent paychecks due to having Christmas break and summers off.

“When we’re not here, we do not get paid, period,” Manely said. “If there was any way that we could balance out school to where we could get paid all the time, we’d have people on staff all the time.”

Manely said the driver position is not considered full time and that their days are often broken up by driving in the morning and afternoon with a gap in the middle.

Perez said FBISD bus drivers work an average of 31 hours a week, nine hours short of a 40-hour, full-time week.

Another factor contributing to the shortage is wage differences between school bus drivers and other occupations where a commercial driver’s license is required, said Phillip Burgoyne-Allen, an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, a national education nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

School bus drivers’ average hourly wage nationally is $16.05, according to May 2018 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The average hourly wage for transit and intercity bus drivers is $21.47 and $21.91 for tractor-trailer drivers.

The starting pay for FBISD bus drivers is $15.18 an hour, with the average driver making $18.25, according to the audit. The highest-paid driver in the district makes $23.08 an hour. GoldStar’s starting driver wage is $18 an hour.

Donna Harris, who has also been a FBISD driver for 25 years, said she has stayed with the district because she enjoys working with the kids.

“You have to be doing it for the kids, not just to get a paycheck,” Harris said.

Shortage solutions

Campbell said no district has found a perfect solution to address the shortage.

“Increasing pay is impactful, but it’s not the only solution,” Campbell said.

Perez said FBISD’s Human Resources Department has conducted a wage survey of driver pay in surrounding districts and will consider adjusting FBISD’s wages based on those results.

Community Impact Newspaper reported in September that Katy ISD’s starting bus driver pay is $17.17 per hour, and the starting wage in Lamar CISD is $18.14 per hour—nearly $3 higher than FBISD’s starting hourly pay.

Oliver said FBISD’s pay can be a determining factor in whether someone becomes a driver.

“We’ve interviewed people that said that they’ll take the job, but negotiation of the salary is the last thing that they do,” Oliver said. “And, once they find out, then they’ll turn us down.”

The audit suggests annual pay for drivers, meaning their total yearly income would be divided over 12 months, so drivers would never go a month without pay. Perez said the district is reviewing the feasibility of this.

Schools districts can also stagger bell schedules and fill out drivers’ days with field trips to give them close to full-time hours, Burgoyne-Allen said.

“Not having all of your schools starting at the same time can help improve your transportation efficiency,” Burgoyne-Allen said. “You’re able to have a single bus or a single bus driver serve more students over a longer period of time because of that staggering.”

The audit proposes centralizing driver recruitment, selection, onboarding and training in addition to tracking which recruitment efforts are bringing in applicants to mitigate the shortage. Additionally, the audit calls for better management and planning efforts surrounding the part-time driver pool.

Board President Jason Burdine said in an email that the board is looking for ways to implement the audit’s recommendations.

Burgoyne-Allen said contracting school bus services, like FBISD does with GoldStar, can provide a quick fix for driver shortages.

“School districts have a primary mission of educating students, obviously,” Burgoyne-Allen said. “So being able to not also have to be experts on transportation can be something that is a benefit for districts, but at the same time, it’s certainly not a cure-all.”

FBISD’s existing $5.4 million, one-year contract with GoldStar expires on July 31, 2020, and Perez said the district will request quotes from potential, future contractors.

“We are always concerned about cost,” Perez said in an email. “However, we must be able to provide services and presently utilizing a contractor meets our needs.”

Jen Para contributed to this report.