The Manatee County school district has been struggling with a shortage of bus drivers all year. Now it’s getting worse because of drivers’ high absenteeism — and students and their families are suddenly paying the price.
Parents of several Anna Maria Elementary School students received letters from the school district on Nov. 2, stating the district would no longer provide bus transportation for their children effective Nov. 8, just six days later. After parents protested, the date was extended to Nov. 21. But their busing is still being cut.
The children were all receiving “hardship busing,” meaning even though they don’t live in Anna Maria Elementary School’s attendance zone and were admitted to AME on school choice, they had been extended busing as a courtesy. Now, the district has had to consolidate two AME buses that were both half-filled and reassign one bus driver, said Superintendent Diane Greene.
To be at “full fleet,” Manatee needs 175 bus drivers; it has only 150. So routes like AME’s are being reassessed throughout the district — and they’re being forced to consolidate buses and eliminate the “courtesy” trips.
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“We are 25 drivers short,” district spokesman Mike Barber said. “Due to the shortage of bus drivers, we have had to reexamine our approach to hardship busing. It’s going on constantly this year.”
The shortage of bus drivers is challenging school districts across the country. In an August survey, conducted by USA Today with U.S. companies that contract with school districts to provide bus drivers, 22 percent reported they face a “severe” driver shortage.
Five percent of the nation’s 50 largest school bus operators said they are “desperate” to find drivers, according to a School Bus Fleet magazine survey. And all the companies reported some shortage of drivers.
Asked how many routes are being cut, Barber said the transportation department didn’t have specifics on how many are affected.
“We’re trying to consolidate throughout the district,” he said.
The Manatee district runs 200 school bus routes, carrying 16,000 students and logging 15,000 miles every school day, Barber said. Starting pay for drivers is $12.57 per hour, and training comes with the job.
The parents whose children are being dropped are angry, frustrated and concerned. And they point to the low salaries for drivers as a big part of the problem.
For 2 1/2 years, Mike O’Connor has picked up his son in front of Palma Sola Presbyterian Church off 67th Street West in Bradenton, where Bus No. 678 has been dropping him off after picking him up at AME. They’ve been notified that the service is ending.
“I think it’s terrible,” O’Connor said. “I know they are going with two buses, which somewhat makes sense. But then you are going to have a bus driving from the north end of the island all the way down to Longboat Key, which will put kids on a bus for more than two hours in the middle of the season.”
School drivers’ salaries should be at least $18 an hour, O’Connor speculated, in order to attract and keep top drivers.
His family suddenly has to figure out how to pick their son up at school and battle traffic back to Bradenton.
“I’m most angry that the decision was made without contacting any parents,” said Katie O’Connor, the boy’s mom.
Rebecca Anderson is also upset her daughters, Madison and Mya, both 9, are not going to get transportation from the school district off the island. The Andersons also do not live on Anna Maria and are attending AME via school choice.
“I totally understand that being choice, the bus wasn’t an option,” Anderson said, standing at the Palma Sola church bus stop. “But when we found out there was a bus, it helped so much because it is a hardship for me. I work here in Northwest Bradenton. I get out of work at 3 p.m. and I work right down the street. It was perfect.
“I know a lot of children ‘school choice’ to Anna Maria Elementary, so I think this is a big disservice to the school,” Anderson added.
Jan Schorry, also a hardship busing mom, was picking up her daughter, Maggie.
“I think it’s terrible,” Schorry said. “I think they are discriminating between these kids. They said they are shutting this bus stop down and combining the buses. That just can’t happen, because of season traffic.”
The letters that went out to parents and the decision that underlies them are part of a problem that is happening not only in Manatee but statewide, Barber said.
“Every district is struggling to find drivers,” Barber said. “It’s supply and demand. We are constantly recruiting for new drivers. It’s something we are reaching out for and looking for new ways to solve.”
Manatee school’s transportation department has been asked to go through all of its routes and try to make the operation as efficient as possible, which has affected the hardship program, Barber said.
“When they find a situation where they can’t provide service, they have to make a change,” Barber added.
Not giving up
After getting her letter from the school district, Katie O’Connor emailed Greene and stated: “There is absolutely no reason that my son and the other students who got the letter should be prohibited to ride this bus.”
Greene replied: “Transportation is researching ways to mitigate high absenteeism and bus driver shortages through route analyzation. Anna Maria has two buses, 668 and 678. Transportation’s routing team is attempting to combine both buses which would yield a bus driver to provide service elsewhere. Both buses are half full.”
Greene continued: “Transportation identified eight hardship students who do not qualify for transportation service and would not be allowed to ride ... Although the policy has existed for many years, transportation has always tried to accommodate students if there was room on an existing route to the desired school. However, we are experiencing extreme shortages in drivers which impacts the routing time, especially for our middle schools. Anna Maria’s routes are connected to Sugg and King middle schools. We are short-changing those students because their buses are always late arriving to school and late picking them up from school. I do apologize this change has impacted your transportation to Anna Maria, but it is necessary.”
Katie O’Connor and the other Anna Maria Island Elementary parents plan on telling their story at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
“All of the parents are upset,” Katie O’Connor said. “I’m going to suggest that they wait until next year to make this change.”
Anyone interesting in being a bus driver for Manatee schools can call 941-782-1287.
What it takes to be a Manatee schools bus driver
- Job description: A school bus driver transports students to and from school following a pre-planned route according to a definite time. Drivers must not only drive carefully and be responsible for the safety of the children on the bus in loading, unloading and transporting, but also maintain discipline and report unruly behavior to principal of the school or supervisor. After routes, the driver must sweep and inspect the bus.
- Applicants need a high school diploma, an acceptable equivalency diploma or be willing to obtain a GED.
- Applicants must pass an annual physical examination
- Applicants must have a valid Florida Commercial Driver’s License.
- A comparable amount of training and experience may be substituted for the minimum qualifications
- Applicants must have the ability to relate to students, parents and school system personnel. They must be able to lift and remove students from the school bus in an emergency. Applicants must have completed first aid and defensive driving courses.
- Starting pay is $12.57 per hour
- Call 941-782-1287 for more information or to begin the application process.
- Information from The School District of Manatee County