The Muscogee County School Board discussed during its monthly work session Monday night a proposal to raise the pay and incentives for bus drivers in the wake of a shortage of drivers and an increase in the number of students needing transportation, resulting in an avalanche of complaints about students being picked up late or transported on overcrowded buses.
The proposal came from representatives John Thomas of District 2 and Frank Myers of District 8. They want the Muscogee County School District to raise the minimum pay for bus drivers to $17 per hour. That’s an increase of 16 percent from the current rate of $14.66 per hour.
“Thereafter, every bus driver employee shall be rewarded with a $1 raise per year for each year he or she serves the district,” the proposal says.
The proposal also calls for a $500 sign-on bonus for each driver after six months of service and an additional $500 retention bonus on the one-year anniversary of their hiring.
“We need to pay people, attract them, hire them and retain them,” Thomas said. “And that’s where we’re failing. We can get it done in this district. It depends on what our priority is going to be.”
Myers didn’t attend the work session.
Thomas estimated it would cost approximately $300,000 per year to implement the proposal.
“I firmly believe if Muscogee County would take the lead in being the first to offer this kind of pay scale for bus drivers,” Thomas said, “then we would show the rest of the state how it should be done.”
MCSD human resources chief Kathy Tessin presented the board with an overview of bus driver pay history and compared the current rates to other districts in the state.
In the past four years, the rate for entry-level bus drivers in MCSD has increased by 9.5 percent while all other non-maintenance support personnel has increased between 3.5 percent and 5 percent.
Here are the other entry-level bus driver rates Tessin showed the board: Bibb County (Macon) $17.48, Atlanta $17, Fulton County $16.48, Chatham County (Savannah) $15.17 and Columbus Consolidated Government (Metra) $15.15.
District 6 representative Mark Cantrell noted MCSD’s entry-level bus drivers are paid less than all of them. Tessin noted she doesn’t know whether those organizations match MCSD by providing their bus drivers with benefits such as insurance and disability. Thomas noted, “You can’t eat benefits.”
MCSD regular-education bus drivers can earn as much as $18.56 per hour with 30 years of experience and a commercial driver’s license. The rate for special-education bus drivers ranges from $16.16 to $20.47.
Out of MCSD’s 217 bus drivers, Tessin said, 62 of them already earn at least $17 per hour. MCSD has 17 vacancies, she said.
The shortage is so urgent at times, transportation director Herbert Hill and other supervisors have to drive some bus routes. Cantrell asserted that has left the transportation department without someone to answer phone calls from upset parents, but MCSD operations director David Goldberg insisted somebody always is in the office to answer the phones, even if the caller reaches a voicemail instead of a human being.
Goldberg also put MCSD’s problem in perspective, saying school districts throughout the state and nation have bus driver shortages. Exacerbating the bus problem this year, however, MCSD is transporting approximately 3,000 more students than last year for a total of 18,000, Goldberg told the board last month. MCSD’s latest total enrollment figure, from March, was 31,569.
Board chairwoman Kia Chambers, the countywide representative, told the administration, “Failure is not an option. Even though it’s a nationwide problem, we have to do something.”
Low morale has been a problem among bus drivers, said Hill, whom the board hired in November 2016 from DeKalb County.
“Over 70 percent of my drivers do this because they love it; the ones that don’t, they don’t stay too long,” Hill said. “. . . A lot of drivers have been doing this so long, they’re just tired.”
To boost morale, Hill said, the transportation had its first year-end banquet to honor the drivers and a back-to-school barbecue. Those events came out of Hill’s pocket, Goldberg said, because they weren’t in the budget.
Misbehavior on the buses and lack of consequences also are problems.
“If we can do something to help them with getting control on those buses,” said District 7 representative Cathy Williams, “morale would increase greatly.”
Chambers asked the administration to consider putting a staff member on each bus, or at least the unruly ones, to monitor student behavior. MCSD already has monitors (paid $11 per hour) on the pre-kindergarten and special-education buses, Tessin said. Chambers also suggested surveying the bus drivers for their input.
Even when bus drivers bring a misbehaving student to the attention of a school official, said District 1 representative Pat Hugley Green, too often “the student is right back on the bus, so it’s sending the message ‘I can do what I want to do.’”
Goldberg agreed with Green but emphasized MCSD’s mission is to educate its children — and that can’t be done if they’re suspended, he said.
District 5 representative Laurie McRae said she is “open to a pay increase” and thanked Thomas for putting the issue on the agenda, but she suggested the board wait at least another month to take a deeper look.
Green also said she supports a pay raise for the bus drivers but urged the administration to come back with a comprehensive plan that is “fair and balanced and, more importantly, sustainable” to address the need for better compensation among all employees.
“We have employees who work full-time who are paid less than bus drivers,” Green said.
District 4 representative Naomi Buckner also called for a comprehensive plan. She cautioned that the $2,000 incentive for special-education teachers hasn’t solved the shortage in that area.
Nonetheless, the proposal for Thomas and Myers will be up for a vote at next Monday’s meeting, which starts at 6 p.m., Chambers said.
Last month’s work session featured a mother criticizing the district for allowing her child’s bus to drive with students “sitting in the aisle, on the floor.”
That’s also when Goldberg told the board MCSD still had 10-13 bus driver vacancies. The number of vacancies were 20 full-time (out of 217 positions) and four part-time (out of 12 positions), MCSD communications director Mercedes Parham told the Ledger-Enquirer in December 2017.
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272, @MarkRiceLE.