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Schools in Hall County battle bus driver shortage
Existing employees might be trained as subs
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C.W. Davis Middle School Principal Eddie Millwood helps direct school buses as they enter the parking lot to pick up students.

Hall County Schools is looking for a creative solution to a chronic problem in school districts — a shortage of substitute bus drivers.

With too few people attracted to the job, the district is looking at creating incentives for existing employees to take the substitute spots.

The district currently has 24 substitute drivers and 232 regular bus drivers. It uses about 15 substitutes on a daily basis when regular drivers are out sick, but needs more when drivers are occupied with field trips and trips for sports and extracurricular groups, according to Jewel Armour, the district’s director of transportation.

During the spring sports season, 30 or more bus drivers could be on trips in a given day, Armour said. Add that to the number of drivers who are out on sick days or medical leave, he said, and 24 substitutes are not enough.

“It’s not a local problem. Every school system I think has the same problem,” Armour said. “Different things have been done over the  years to try to attract more people.”

Armour said there were more substitute drivers at the height of the economic crisis, but improvements in the economy mean substitute drivers move to other jobs.

“We see people probably going back to former jobs or other jobs that pay more,” Armour said.

Armour said the district prefers to use regular bus drivers for trips because they have more experience, so substitute drivers often fill in on regular routes. Because of the shortage of subs, though, coaches sometimes drive the bus during sports trips.

The coaches have been trained to drive a bus and have their commercial driver’s licenses, but Armour said the situation is not ideal.

“That’s one of our saving graces at this point, but we’d prefer not to have coaches driving if we have enough folks,” he said.

Training and the need for a commercial license, Armour said, are part of what makes it difficult to find substitute drivers.

“The state dictates the type of training you have to have to drive, and the minimum training you have to provide,” he said.

For the district, that means classroom training followed by training on the bus, both with and without students.

“When they finish that training, then of course they study and go take a test on the computer at the Department of Driver Services,” Armour said.

It’s this step where potential drivers are often lost. Armour said it’s not unusual for new hires to complete the district training, but either never take the CDL test or never pass it.

“They don’t come back,” Armour said. “I feel like probably a lot of people that apply, it’s possible they don’t have computer experience. Most of them have probably been out of school for years and forgot what it’s like to take a test.”

The district has hired someone on a contract basis to train potential new bus drivers on computer and test-taking skills, and Armour said that’s helped, but it’s not clear whether it will help enough to clear the shortage. Also, there are still problems of turnover after substitute drivers have started working.

To alleviate this problem, the district is considering providing incentives for classified personnel — school employees who are not teachers or administrators — to get their commercial licenses and fill in on bus routes.

“We’ve got people who work for the school system, particularly (paraprofessionals) and lunchroom workers — who might be available to drive afternoons, and that’s when we have the crunch time,” Armour said.

The district is looking at the possibility of providing bonuses to classified personnel who sub for bus drivers, Superintendent Will Schofield said Monday at a Board of Education meeting.

“We’re kind of just brainstorming at this point,” Armour said. “We haven’t really set any incentives or set anything in stone.”

Schofield pitched the idea to the school board, which gave the district leave to further explore the idea.

“There have been plenty of times when we’ve had a need for a lot of subs,” Armour said. “There’s a lot of demand for buses.”

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