At 3:45 p.m., the final bell rings at Bluffton’s May River High School, but often last fall, Amy Mobley’s two children weren’t getting home until after 5 p.m.
Her children, then ages 16 and 14, were stuck on a “double route,” meaning they had to wait at school while their bus driver finished his first afternoon route before coming back to pick up them and other students for the second run.
“My kids were fired up when they had to wait until 5,” Mobley said.
Because she works from home, Mobley said she began picking up her children from school to avoid the delays. Mobley’s children are no longer in that situation, but double routes are still a daily inconvenience to families in the Beaufort County School District – and it’s directly tied to an ongoing shortage of bus drivers.
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The district’s 159 bus routes are managed by roughly 140 drivers, district officials say.
A survey by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette of the state’s school districts found that Beaufort County’s driver shortfall was among the largest of the responding districts.
Bridgette Frazier, a Hilton Head Island Middle School English teacher and unsuccessful candidate for the Beaufort County School Board last fall, said she has received calls from at least 20 parents about double-routing and other transportation issues. She also said she has observed teachers on duty waiting up to an hour with the group of students on the double route.
“(Students) are getting to school late; they’re getting home late,” Frazier said. “The district is probably two or three drivers away from throwing the entire bus routing system off.”
This year, the district began directly managing its bus program instead of contracting services out as it had done for years, but it is unclear whether there is a larger driver shortage with the switch.
District officials say the current shortage is not unique in the South Carolina, contending they struggle to compete with local private employers offering more hours. The newspapers’ survey, however, indicates pay may be an issue. All but one of the other school districts offering better pay to their drivers reported fewer, if any, shortages.
More double routes
In January, 17 routes — six north of the Broad River and 11 in southern Beaufort County — were double-routes, district spokesman Jim Foster said then. That number increased to 22 or 23 routes in mid-March.
Most double-routes are in the Bluffton area, Foster said, and each double-routed bus affects an average between 50 and 60 students per bus.
The district’s chief auxiliary services officer, Gregory McCord, said he doesn’t believe the problem is getting worse.
“It’s a moving number,” he said. “Some of those (bus) runs are very short.”
Most of the additional double routes are for students shuttled to extracurricular activities, not to neighborhoods, he said.
(Students) are getting to school late; they’re getting home late. The district is probably two or three drivers away from throwing the entire bus routing system off.
Bridgette Frazier, Hilton Head Island Middle School English teacher
“Given that over 11,000 students take the bus to or from school daily,” McCord said, “...in the grand scheme of things, percentage-wise, we’re doing pretty well.
“Can we do better?” he continued. “Most definitely. Are we happy where we are? Not at all.”
Many circumstances leading to delays are beyond the district’s control, McCord argued.
McCord points to traffic patterns along with mechanical breakdowns of older buses provided and maintained by the state.
Roughly 38 percent of the district’s school buses are 20 years or older, according to S.C. Department of Education records, prompting the state superintendent to recently call for additional money to replace old buses.
Better in the past?
For the first time in 20 years, the district is directly managing its bus program, including hiring drivers.
In the past, the district contracted the job out to private bus service companies, most recently with Durham School Services, based out of Warrenville, Ill.
The school board decided to end its contract with Durham after last school year after the company’s bid to extend its contract with the district for the 2016-17 school year was $6.5 million, a proposed $900,000 increase over its previous contract.
District superintendent Jeff Moss told school board members last spring he was confident the district could both improve service and lower costs.
The Dorchester 2 School District ended its contract with Durham after the 2014-2015 school year, a decision that resulted in more satisfied parents and an end to the once-chronic driver shortage in its first district-run year, district officials told The Post and Courier newspaper.
The last South Carolina district still contracting with Durham, however, does not have a shortage. Charleston County School District has 398 drivers for 382 routes, meaning there’s a driver for every route in addition to 16 substitute drivers, district spokesman Andy Pruitt told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
A Durham spokeswoman declined to comment when contacted recently.
McCord said difficulty in recruiting and retaining drivers was as much of a problem for Durham when it had the contract for his district.
“I would venture to say it was about the same,” he said about the number of double routes last school year under Durham.
While some say busing issues are worse this school year under the district’s direct management, McCord said that arrangement will continue next school year.
“I can’t say that it’s worse,” he said. “I can tell you that ... it’s been over 20 years since the district has had its hands on transportation. (We’re) very happy with the results so far.”
At a workforce summit in late February, Superintendent Moss reported 30 driver openings that have been unfilled the entire school year.
In March, district officials said there were between 17 to 20 openings for the 159 routes.
Asked about the discrepancy in numbers, McCord said, “It’s a constantly shifting number that moves up and down as drivers come and go.”
Beaufort County School District officials contend their bus driver shortage is not unusual.
“You don’t have to research it far and wide,” McCord said. “Across the state as well as the country, there’s shortages of drivers.”
The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette’s survey of the state’s 81 school districts found that of the responding 65 districts, 45 reported open driver positions.
But Beaufort County School District’s shortage of at least 17 drivers, or 10.7 percent, is one of the largest reported.
The Colleton County School District had the biggest shortage percentage, with 19 openings among an 88-driver fleet. And 16 districts reported at least a 10-percent driver shortage.
The Beaufort County School District was among that group and came in 13th to last place of the 65 districts that responded to the survey.
In a January email to the newspapers, Foster, the district spokesman, said the district has been “aggressively recruiting prospective drivers.”
Tactics include putting up help-wanted signs around the county, communicating with staff members, recruiting local pastors to help spread the word and posting on social media, he said.
The district updated its Facebook cover photo on March 1 to advertise for drivers. Twelve days later, the photo was replaced with another image. Before this month, the Facebook page had posted about driver openings once, on Sept. 6.
Hard job, low pay
Recruiting drivers who have the patience to handle dozens of children, the driving ability to maneuver a large vehicle and a background clean enough to pass state and federal requirements is a challenge for any school district.
“(Bus drivers) are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated,” said Frazier, the Hilton Head Island Middle School teacher.
A bus driver in the Beaufort County School District earns an average of $17.76 per hour and has eight years of experience, said McCord, the district’s chief auxilary officer.
Starting salary for a first-year driver is $12.56 an hour for 30 hours per week. The school year for drivers is 180 days, which for new drivers works out to an annual salary of a little more than $14,500. The calculation includes a $1,000 cost-of-living stipend for each school year.
At least 12 other school districts offer a higher starting salary, 11 of which of have a smaller driver shortage or no shortage at all, according to district representatives.
Three of those districts — Lexington 1, Georgetown and York 2 — raised driver pay before the start of this school year and reported filling positions better than in previous years.
Recruiting in Beaufort County is especially difficult with new businesses offering jobs with more hours and a more traditional work schedule, McCord said.
He offered the new Sam’s Club and two Wal-Marts in the county as examples of jobs that would likely field the same pool of applicants.
Retail positions don’t require a commercial driver’s license, though the school district tries to counter that by paying for physical exams and driver training required to receive a commercial license for qualified applicants without it, McCord said.
And hiring a driver doesn’t ensure they’ll stay long.
Since the start of the school year, McCord reported 27 drivers have left.
“As long as you have new store openings, new restaurant openings, new beginnings for businesses, that’s always going to be a pull on everyone as to who’s going to get this worker,” he said.
How to apply
Complete an online application to become a Beaufort County School District bus driver at https://www.applitrack.com/beaufort/onlineapp/. Applications remain in active status for one year.