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2017-09-27 / Front Page

School system tackles bus driver shortage

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER

A shortage of bus drivers has left some Chesterfield students sitting at school for more than an hour after dismissal, waiting for a driver to complete another route before returning to pick them up.

But school officials are confident that an aggressive bus driver recruitment initiative will eliminate the need for such “double backs” by mid-October at the latest.

According to Superintendent James Lane, Chesterfield County Public Schools’ transportation department currently has 18 “double back” routes – down from 40 at this time last year.

“The really good news is we have 51 drivers in our training pipeline,” Lane told members of the County-Schools Liaison Committee earlier this month.

When those drivers are qualified to begin transporting students, Lane said, “not only will we eliminate the double-backs, we’ll have more than enough drivers to cover all routes if we have absences.”

Transportation has been a persistent challenge for the school system, which has about 40,000 daily bus riders and 12,000 bus stops in a county that covers 446 square miles.

It spent more than $600,000 in 2014 to acquire and implement an automated bus routing and GPS tracking system, but has experienced repeated problems – including slow speeds and multiple system crashes – with the routing software.

School officials are working to finalize the purchase of a new routing system, which is expected to cost about $270,000, and overhaul bus routes by the start of the 2018-19 school year.

“It’s a fundamental system for running any transportation system, especially one our size,” said Nita Mensia-Joseph, the school system’s chief operations officer, during a School Board meeting last month.

County leaders have raised questions about bus driver staffing following the school system’s decision to change school start times next September – a move that likely will require at least 30 additional buses.

Lane, however, expects to have more than enough drivers to accommodate that initiative.

“We’ve significantly improved our driver recruitment process,” he said. “We really struggled to recruit drivers, so we started doing a lot of new initiatives, in addition to interviewing in dual language, where we’ve had some help as well.”

Tim Bullis, a spokesman for the school system, noted in an email last week that its fiscal year 2018 budget includes funding to increase salaries for drivers who transport students on general education buses.

“Previously, there was a disparity between general education and special education drivers,” he wrote. School officials are increasingly using social media for recruiting bus drivers and have held multiple job fairs specifically for drivers and other support positions. They’ve also streamlined the process for hiring prospective drivers at those job fairs, giving candidates on-the-spot interviews, job offers and fingerprinting for background checks.

That has significantly bolstered the pool of people who are being trained to drive Chesterfield school buses, Lane said. In addition to the 51 drivers currently in training, another 40 will start training next month.

In the meantime, Midlothian Supervisor Leslie Haley emphasized the need for the school system to communicate with parents whose students are on “double back” bus routes.

“I have a hard time when parents come to me and say, ‘Would somebody please just tell us so we know what to expect? Then we can make the decision whether to go to the school and pick up our child,’” Haley said during the Liaison Committee meeting.

“Especially with the elementary schools because the kids don’t have cellphones to text and contact their parents. I think that’s my biggest key, to make sure behind the scenes there is messaging sent, even if it’s robocalls that go to everybody and say, ‘If your kids are on this route, you’re going to be late.’”

Lane acknowledged some school administrators have been reluctant to make school-wide robocalls for bus issues that affect a limited number of students.

He also noted that won’t be an issue once the new routing system is in place because it will make it much easier for transportation staff to communicate with parents of students on specific bus routes.

“Some of our schools try to avoid robocalls at the end of the day because when parents miss your call, they immediately call back to find out why they were called. That ties up the phones for actual problems that are happening,” said Carrie Coyner, one of the School Board’s two representatives on the Liaison Committee.

“It’s very difficult at that time of day in a school office when you have parents calling with emergency situations,” Coyner added. “It’s a call made by our principals, depending on what they think is in everyone’s best interests.” ¦

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