Driver shortage pushes Flagler school transportation to the limit
Dontarious Rowls knew what he was getting into when he became Director of Transportation for Flagler Schools: Bus driver shortage exacerbated by COVID-19; a pay scale that can’t keep up with driver options in neighboring counties; parents are understandably upset by late arriving buses, long walks to bus stops and doubling of bus trips.
The school district currently has about 64 school bus drivers, or about 12 to 18 drivers below peak efficiency, Rowls said in an Oct. 1 interview.
âRight now I have pilots who are stretched,â he said.
As a result, the buses are late and the drivers are making double trips.
Rowls said his department has had 12 to 15 quits since the start of the school year.
âWe started the year low, but we had enough to get the job done. Now it’s even more stressful, âhe said.
âWe started the year low, but we had enough to get the job done. Now it’s even more stressful.
DONTARRIOUS ROWLS, Director of Transportation, Flagler Schools
Rowls said some drivers are “terrified” of working in confined environments because of the pandemic. Others find better paying jobs at Waste Pro, or with transportation authorities in neighboring counties or other school districts.
The Jacksonville Transit Authority has offered drivers $ 10,000 to $ 15,000 in bonuses due to its own shortage.
Rowls said Flagler Schools pay a starting wage of $ 13.58 an hour for inexperienced drivers and $ 14.67 for drivers with five years of experience.
Other school districts pay more, he said. The St. Johns County School District pays a starting wage of $ 16.00 per hour for inexperienced drivers, $ 17.94 for five years of experience, and a sliding scale of up to 23, $ 93 for 14 years of experience, according to the district’s website.
“Our goal right now is to stabilize our workforce,” Flagler Schools Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt said of employee shortages in the school district.
Mittelstadt said about 200 district employees earn less than $ 15 an hour, which is expected to become the minimum wage in Florida by 2026. The increase in their wages will cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour. an, she said.
Rowls and Mittelstadt said the school district trains drivers to obtain their commercial driver’s licenses.
âWe pay for the training, we prepare them to get tested on the equipment and we pay for the testing,â Rowls said, referring to the state-certified exam.
The drivers are also trained in student management and de-escalation of situations, he said.
The training takes three to six weeks, depending on the individual, Rowls said. Right now there are three candidate drivers in training, he said, but added: “It takes someone 30 seconds to tell me, ‘I’m quitting’, and to replace them we let’s look at up to six weeks. “
Commenting on a recent post in the Facebook group, Flagler Parents, many parents praised their children’s bus drivers. Others noted that bus stops can be a long walk and cross traffic for some children, and that buses are often late.
âA bus shows up and then tells us there will be another busâ¦ wait and another bus doesn’t show up,â a relative said.
Rowls said the department was inundated with parents calling to say their child’s bus was late or didn’t show up. Typically, the bus is late and parents leave before the bus arrives, he said.
âOur goal right now is to stabilize our workforce.â
CATHY MITTELSTADT, Principal of Flagler Schools
Rowls said there are around 75 bus lines in the district in addition to excursions and after-school programs. For these routes there are 64 active drivers and four or five part-time drivers who work as needed. Rowls said he knew transport had to cover nine routes each day. If drivers get sick, nine routes can easily become 12 or 15, he said.
Children arrive home late because some parents drive their children to school before they go to work, but rely on buses to take them home, Rowls said. With full loads in the afternoon, buses will double as needed, sending out a short trip with this bus first, then returning to school to take the longer route.
To save time, smaller routes are sometimes combined on the same bus.
âWe share with parents the situation we are facing,â he said. âWe’re going to bring in the children. We cannot guarantee that it will be on the roadmap at that point. We just have to use all of our resources and maximize them to the best of our ability to get the job done.
âIf we can find the funds to hold people back, it will stop the bleeding,â he said. “But that won’t solve the problem.”