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VOL. 41 | NO. 36 | Friday, September 08, 2017

$17.25 an hour plus benefits? Better get on the bus

By Hollie Deese

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Williamson County is offering $17.25 an hour with paid training and full-time benefits for bus drivers.

That’s health insurance and summers off, but there just aren’t enough workers to take the wheel. Scores of other non-teaching jobs are vacant, as well.

Parents are riled, particularly about the bus driver shortage.

Gillian Peabody’s Williamson County kindergartner walks off the bus each day after 5 p.m., more than an hour after his 3:50 dismissal.

“It’s his first time being at school, and he’s in school seven hours, which is already a long time for a kindergartner, and then over an hour on the bus to get home,” she says. “Not fun.”

This is Peabody’s fourth year as a parent putting kids on the bus in Williamson County, with children at Grassland Elementary and Middle. She says she has seen the bus service struggle to be consistent the last few years as drivers are being tasked with combined and double routes.

Children are, as a result, late to class each morning, and young elementary students are on the bus too long after school.

“It’s just not fair for the kids, and it’s really not fair for the driver,” Peabody says.

Peabody has reached out to the school’s transportation department, where she was told 72 drivers have been trained this year. She says she has yet to see the results.

“I think it’s just contributing to the stress of the growing pains that are already there,” Peabody explains.

“At the time where we really need everything to work efficiently to manage all the new families and all the new kids, we kind of need this part of the system to work well, and it’s not. And this really seems to me like a very fixable problem.”

Low unemployment rate

Carol Birdsong, Williamson County Schools communications director, admits they are short bus drivers right now, as well as childcare workers, workers in the before- and after-care programs and cafeteria workers.

In fact, there are dozens and dozens of open, non-teaching positions the district is actively looking to fill. Like, right now.

“We have a real need,” Birdsong says. “Growth is part of it, but also our unemployment rate is so low here. Which you want to be happy about, but it really does put a strain on us in some areas.”

Tennessee made history for the second consecutive month in July with a preliminary unemployment rate of 3.4 percent, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development has announced. This exceeded the previous month’s record-setting rate of 3.6 percent.

The unemployment rate dropped in 94 of Tennessee’s 95 counties earlier this summer, with nine of the 10 lowest county numbers in Middle Tennessee.

Williamson County clocked in with the lowest rate in the state, at just 2 percent, decreasing 1.1 percent in the last year.

“We’re struggling,” Birdsong adds. “I think that’s a fair statement when we have about 100 vacancies in just those few areas.”

Birdsong says everyone from retired grandparents to college students to parents looking for some extra income are encouraged to consider looking into the list of open jobs at the school district, including part- and full-time drivers.

Despite the health insurance and summers off, Williamson County just can’t seem to get a full roster of drivers. The main problem with hiring and keeping drivers, most agree, is that it is split-shift work, with a few hours very early in the morning and then another few late in the afternoon.

Sumner County is having the same issue with the hiring bus drivers remaining one of the school district’s biggest challenges. There were still more than 30 openings for drivers after the school year started, and Director Del Phillips recently proposed a 4 percent pay increase for drivers.

In Wilson County, a task force was created this year to find bus drivers. The district admits it has not been fully staffed with bus drivers since 2012, and routes are sometimes canceled because of the shortage.

“I think transportation’s always an issue for us,” Birdsong says. “I don’t know that there’s ever any solution to that. We have made progress, I will say that. But we still have vacancies, and people still get sick. You’ll have people out on medical leaves or different things, and so you’ll need substitute drivers.”

Late start causes logistical issues

Following research that highlighted the social and emotional benefits in allowing adolescents to sleep later, Williamson County schools instituted a later start time this year for all schools, with the first bell for all high schools at 7:40 a.m.

Because the district does not have the resources to transport middle and high school students at the same time as elementary students, the elementary school start time moved to 8:45-8:50 a.m.

This has exacerbated the transportation issue for many parents. Drivers having to double up on their routes are consistently late picking up kids.

Parents who have to be at work at 9 a.m. can’t wait around until 8:45 a.m. for the bus to come and end up driving the children themselves or face the consequences for being late to work.

Parent Kim Neese has teamed up with neighborhood parents on a temporary solution after consistently getting email alerts at 6:30 a.m. that her children’s bus route was being combined with another route and pickup would be later than normal.

So, each neighborhood family has picked one day each week when all the kids wait at their house for the bus.

“On Tuesdays, all the kids come to my house, and I’m late. But at least you’re only late one day a week,” she says.

A better solution would be finding out why drivers leave the job once they start, whether that means more training at the start or conducting exit interviews at the end.

“It would be one thing if it was just an isolated issue, but there’s really no end in sight,” Neese says. “Figure out what the problem is, and fix it.”