Lawmakers discuss challenges driving Maryland bus driver shortage

Faced with a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, some Maryland county leaders and school district leaders are investing more money to raise driver wages.

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Faced with a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, some Maryland County officials and school district leaders are investing more money to raise wages for drivers, whose average starting wage is $ 19.45 an hour , according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

That average starting salary is significantly lower than that of any other commercial driver’s license holder – including those who drive dump trucks or deliver for Amazon or DoorDash – said Erin Appel, who represents the Maryland School Bus. Contractor Association. She testified about the shortage of school bus drivers to state lawmakers in a virtual briefing on Wednesday.

Last month, Calvert County bus drivers staged a strike protesting low wages and benefits, and the school district agreed to a raise. “A lot of things that we have asked for, including a raise in salary…” It is really terrible that something so drastic has to happen for the [school] system to listen.

But Calvert County public schools do not fund school bus driver health care plans, she said. Usually Calvert County bus drivers can collect unemployment benefits during the summer months, but it has been especially difficult this year with the pandemic and the challenges of navigating the state’s new unemployment portal, BEACON 2.0.

About half of Maryland’s 7,300 school buses are owned by contractors; Montgomery, Frederick, Talbot and Prince George are the only counties that directly own and operate their fleet of school buses, according to Appel. Bus contracts typically last 12 years, which is also the life of the bus, Reid said.

The Maryland State Department of Education has no involvement in bus driver contracts between private companies and local school districts, said Gabriel Rose, director of student transportation for MSDE.

About 75% of students in public schools in Maryland use school buses as their primary source of transportation to school, but of the 24 local school systems, Kent, Garrett and Worcester counties were the only school districts to have declared to have a driver assigned to each bus route. , according to MSDE.

Anne Arundel was one of the first school districts to address the bus driver shortage by allocating $ 7.4 million for bus driver wage increases. Baltimore County Manager John A. Olszewski Jr. (D) also recently announced an investment of $ 5.2 million in salary increases, employment incentives, and enrollment bonuses and detention for school bus drivers.

In Baltimore County, the extra money will come from the US federal bailout stimulus package. Additionally, the Baltimore County government will cover $ 100 for background checks and other pre-employment costs such as drug tests that could cost up to $ 220, both traditionally paid for by newbies. bus drivers.

“These barriers, combined with a general shortage of people [commercial driver] driving licenses, have undermined our efforts to bring more drivers on buses and more children to class safely, ”Olszewski said at a press conference on Tuesday.

In Howard County this week, school bus drivers staged a “work stoppage,” which prompted County Director Calvin Ball to commit $ 2 million in US bailout funds to assist in the retention and hiring of bus drivers.

Prince George County public schools still have 200 bus lines that don’t have drivers and some drivers go to five schools a day, said Rudolph Saunders, director of transportation for PGCPS. Although the school district hired 50 to 60 new school bus drivers this school year, they also lost about the same number of drivers, he said. The PCGPS also administered random drug tests to bus drivers during the pandemic and lost a number as a result of these results, he said.

According to John Woolums, director of government relations for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, there is no money in the Blueprint For Maryland’s Future, the state’s comprehensive decade-long education reform plan, which deals with the compensation of bus drivers.

In addition to a low starting salary amid a global pandemic, other challenges include long wait times at the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, local bus contractors and school leaders told lawmakers. . It takes one to three weeks for potential commercial vehicle drivers to get an appointment at the MVA, according to Paul Lebo, operations manager of Frederick County Public Schools.

To encourage new drivers to take the test, the MVA has started offering Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) tests at several branches on Saturdays, a day they are not traditionally offered, said Christine Nizer, administrator of the MVA.

They also sent letters to CDL drivers who do not yet drive a school bus, encouraging them to consider changing careers, Nizer said. To speed up the authorization process, the MVA has also allowed some private entities to test their own employers.

However, bigger challenges remain, such as a 25% no-show rate, which removes appointments from drivers who might have been ready to take the test, Nizer said. There is also a high failure rate, around 50%, she continued.

“Almost every time we submit a pilot, we have to schedule another test with half of those pilots to retest,” she said.

It would be helpful if the MVA could speed up appointments so that those who failed the test could retake it the next day, instead of waiting several weeks before the next available appointment, which increases test anxiety. Lebo said. He also encouraged a statewide campaign calling for more school bus drivers, potentially targeting retirees.

Woolums also suggested that failing part of a test should not require a potential commercial vehicle driver to retake the entire test.

When asked what they have done to deal with increasing school bus driver shortages, Rose said MSDE brought all local school leaders together in early October to share best practices. and helped connect local school leaders with available federal funding that could help them.

Of the. Anne R. Kaiser (D-Montgomery) asked a question about a invoice which was adopted this year and allows local school districts to provide transportation for students in vehicles other than buses. Rose said regulations on this will be ready for public comment later this month and will come back for approval by the State Board of Education early next year.

But even with the growing shortage of school bus drivers statewide, the licensing process shouldn’t be rushed at the cost of lowering safety standards, Woolums said.

“Despite the daunting challenges presented by the shortage of qualified drivers, we really want to underline our reluctance or unwillingness to… water down any of these safety standards,” he said.

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