The shortage of bus drivers in the School District of Manatee County is so acute right now that approximately 20 office staff from the district’s transportation department, who have gotten commercial driver’s licenses, are driving buses almost daily as emergency substitutes.
The scramble to fill bus routes is so critical that one parent told the Herald that her child has been getting home more than an hour late throughout January and has been late for school in the morning due to tardy buses.
Part of the problem is that the district has 150 school bus drivers right now, far short of the 180 to 200 bus drivers needed to comfortably fill its routes, said Jason Harris, director of transportation and vehicle maintenance.
The other half of the problem is that, on average, 20 to 30 Manatee County school bus drivers are calling out sick daily, said Ron Cirrana, the district’s deputy superintendent.
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My kids are an hour late getting home almost every day this month. The bus is also late every morning.
Josephine, Manatee County school parent
“We are experiencing a high rate of absenteeism among bus drivers,” Cirrana said.
That is why office staff from the transportation department are being called on to drive buses, Harris said.
“It hinders everyone,” Ciranna said of the absenteeism. “The office staff who drive a bus still have to go do their office work. We have pulled out all the stops.”
Because of the shortage and absenteeism, the district is saying that students riding school buses may experience 30- to 45-minute delays both going to school and coming home, Harris said.
School district officials say it’s a staffing problem that the district is scrambling to fix, but that isn’t pacifying at least one Manatee parent.
The woman, named Josephine, a few days ago posted on the Bradenton Herald’s Facebook page. She didn’t include her child’s school or where the bus stop was located.
“I was just wondering if you at the Herald are aware of some of the issues with the school buses?” she wrote. “My kids are an hour late getting home almost every day this month. The bus is also late every morning. They don’t even bother to call us parents and let us know half of the time.”
“School was out an hour and 20 minutes ago and I am still sitting here at the bus stop. Very frustrated parent!” Josephine wrote.
Addressing Josephine’s points, Harris and Cirrana said a bus running an hour or more late is not typical and that, if it did occur, the parent would have received an electronic message.
“We have a 15-minute rule,” Harris said. “If they are going to be 15 minutes or more late, we call.”
What about simply paying bus drivers more starting on Feb. 1 to correct the problem?
Impossible, Cirrana said.
“You can’t pull one group out of the budget and give them more money,” Cirrana said. “But we are in the midst of negotiations right now. If our package is accepted and the March 20 referendum passes, we would be able to surpass both Sarasota and Pinellas in bus driver pay.”
Cirrana is referring to the March 20 special property tax referendum where voters will decide if Manatee schools receive roughly $33 million, a portion of which would be used to hike the pay of bus drivers and other workers.
Bus drivers for businesses like parcel carriers are passing up school bus jobs because they can earn $17 or $18 per hour while Manatee schools’ starting pay for bus drivers is $12.58 per hour with max pay at $20.93 per hour, Harris said.
If the March 20 referendum passes, the district will be able to pay people who prefer to be school bus drivers $13.93 to start and $22.45 in max pay, Cirrana added.
“That would surpass what Sarasota and Pinellas counties are paying their bus drivers,” Cirrana said.