County bus drivers needed for ‘toughest job’

Published 7:24 pm Friday, February 15, 2019


Good help is hard to find, even when it comes to finding qualified school bus drivers.

Earlier this week, a message went out on social media to parents of Southampton Middle School that one of the buses would not be running that day. Parents were asked to bring their children themselves. Based on the reaction from some people, that was not the first time that a county school bus didn’t run.

This situation is not new or even unique to the county. For example, the school board was discussing a shortage in 2017. The two-tier bus system, which was implemented that school year, was intended as a way to reduce the number of drivers needed.

In answer to The Tidewater News‘ questions about the issue, Supt. Dr. Gwendolyn Shannon made the following statement:

Southampton County Schools currently has a school bus driver shortage and as a result, it impacts students in arriving to school and getting home in a timely manner. Unfortunately, the bus driver shortage has taken another hit in the past week with two bus drivers leaving their positions. We share the frustrations of parents and students, and are working diligently to address concerns and to make our parents aware of the continued efforts toward improvements in providing adequate transportation. We are in the process of conducting strategy meetings with school administrators and select bus drivers. We will be working through the weekend to continue to address the issues prior to our return to school after Monday’s holiday.”

She continued, “In addition to the strategic meetings that are occurring, we are conversing with personnel regarding the possible adjustment of the time between the double routes, internal concerns, improved recruiting, training, onboarding, and retention of drivers, outsourcing transportation and soliciting outside assistance. We have recently partnered with two school divisions to expedite the necessary training for new hires to become fully licensed to drive a school bus.”

Shannon said the school system is using the professional services division of its bus routing software company to review the following:

Route creation, consolidation, and efficiency

Conducting a route time study

Requesting an organizational, operational review study

Using geocodes and satellite imagery to assign students to bus routes

Importing and accuracy of data

Possible bus pool and neighborhood bus stops

While this is no consolation, the school bus driver shortage is not unique to Southampton County. The National Association for Pupil Transportation has acknowledged the severity of school bus driver shortage and is researching possible solutions. School Bus Fleet magazine also reports that national and local news sources are continually reporting on the impact of school bus driver shortage nationwide.

Currently, Southampton County has 40 school bus drivers and eight vacant school bus driver positions. With the deficits in our transportation department, school bus driver absenteeism compounds the issue on a day-to-day basis. We are, however, excited to announce that four individuals have enrolled in the school bus driver training and will be fully licensed school bus drivers very soon.”
Furthermore: “As a division, we are committed to improvements in the efficiency of transporting our students. There is no simple solution. We are working tirelessly to address the transportation issues and are rolling up our sleeves and exploring all possibilities to get the students of Southampton County Public Schools to and from school — safely and timely.”

Dr. Deborah Goodwyn, chairwoman of the school board, acknowledged that like other localities, it’s difficult to find bus drivers.

“We are aware of the situation, and that Dr. [Gwendolyn] Shannon is working to address the situation. We expect the situation to get better,” said Goodwyn. “This is primarily not because of pay, which is consistent with other localities; it’s a part-time position of four to six hours a day. It [the shortage] has more to do with the job becoming less attractive because of the hours involved. That’s not unique to Southampton County.”

Fellow school board member William Worsham, who had initially proposed the two-tier system, agreed with Goodwyn’s assessment.

Southampton is like many surrounding districts,” he said. “Ours may be unique because the county is so expansive.

He noted that even bus mechanics and members of the school transportation department have had to take the wheel and get students to and from the schools due to the lack of drivers.

We just didn’t have enough,” he said, adding, “The two-tier system will work, but you have to have drivers.”

He noted that when the economy is doing as well as it has been lately, “people aren’t going to pick up those part-time jobs.”

Most of the time, said Worsham, the bus drivers are very accommodating in having to take an extra route once they complete their own schedules.

The toughest job is driving buses,” he said, noting how daunting it is to ride on the high-traffic areas of U.S. Highway 58 and Route 460.