Southampton County Public Schools battles bus driver shortage
Published 1:38 am Wednesday, March 29, 2023
Southampton County Public Schools has been navigating the challenge of a bus driver shortage in recent months.
Will Melbye, SCPS coordinator of auxiliary services and transportation, has highlighted the need for more bus drivers in multiple Southampton County School Board meetings.
In a March 9 interview, he shared more details about and surrounding the shortage.
THE IDEAL AND THE SHORTFALL
He explained that SCPS has 53 different runs that it manages every school day between its secondary and elementary schools.
“If we were to have zero absences, all 34 contracted drivers and a sub are used to make this happen,” he said.
Some drivers are two-tiered drivers, which means they make both secondary and elementary school runs, Melbye noted, and some drivers run just one or the other — single-run drivers.
“Many times, we are using a single-run driver for second run to fill the gaps,” he said.
He indicated that to make the SCPS Transportation Department extremely efficient and fully stocked, it would need to feature 38 to 40 drivers with commercial driver’s licenses and “P” (passenger) and “S” (school bus) endorsements.
SCPS is four to six two-tiered drivers short of a full staff, he said.
CONSEQUENCES IF SHORTAGE GROWS
When asked how many drivers the school division can be without and still avoid experiencing significant problems, Melbye said, “Considering that we already operate at a deficit, we push that boundary every day. And while there is no magic number to the number of absences that would cause a significant issue, a singular route, especially with emergency absences, can make a huge impact on the entire system, as one absence can create a cascading effect.”
Helping to establish what is at stake, Melbye provided a definition for what would be considered “significant problems.”
“When we run into times where students are late for school or late going home, that would be significant,” he said. “We really do everything we can to get our kids to and from school in a timely manner and as safely as possible.”
A CYCLE OF SHORTAGES
Melbye noted that a school bus driver shortage is not unprecedented in Southampton.
“I have been in the county for 15 years now, and it has been cyclical,” he said. “There have been times where it has been great and times we have really struggled, from having enough to cover all the runs and extra-curricular events on the same day to drivers doing double runs at the same school.”
He explained that combating a driver shortage was the reason the division switched to a two-tier system years ago.
ANALYZING THE CAUSE OF THE SHORTAGE
Melbye shared some thoughts on why the shortage has occurred and recurs.
“An economist I am not, but (former school board member William) Worsham had an idea about it,” he said. “When the economy was good and people didn’t need a job — there was generally a driver shortage. But in times when it was a slower economy, the skilled folks that have the credentials necessary were readily available and willing to drive.”
When looking at the percentages, SCPS faces the same level of shortage that neighboring school divisions face, Melbye stated.
“However, given our size of staff, our actual number of drivers that we are short is minuscule in comparison to the large divisions,” he said.
REPORT ON THE HIRING EFFORT
The challenge of hiring bus drivers is similar to the challenge some other businesses are facing as they seek to eliminate their manpower deficits.
“The applicant pool isn’t deeper than a puddle, and given the licensure and demands of the job — it is a difficult one to staff,” Melbye said. “Our drivers do a fantastic job of taking care of the kids.”
He noted that seeking and hiring bus drivers is a never-ending process.
“Although we do have a great core of dedicated, veteran and longstanding drivers, we still experience driver turnover throughout the year,” he said. “Bus drivers are not unlike anyone else; they have family needs, still get sick, still have emergencies and still have ‘life’ that happens.”
FOR THOSE WILLING TO HELP OUT
Melbye took a moment to make an appeal to anyone who would be willing to serve as an SCPS bus driver.
“Much like every other job — it’s not necessarily for everyone and not just anyone can do it,” he said. “There are the training and licensure requirements that are not as easy as you’d imagine. But we do offer training and welcome anyone that would be interested to stop by or call (Josh) Griffin.”
Griffin can be reached at 757-653-2692, which is the main line to the school board office.
Melbye said Griffin would be able to run those interested through the entire process, give them all the information they could ever need and answer any question they may have.
Being a SCPS bus driver is “a great opportunity for folks to work in the division and be a part of providing an essential piece to our students’ overall educational experience,” Melbye said.