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Why are so many school districts struggling to find good bus drivers?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

School districts across the U.S. have been struggling for years with a shortage of school bus drivers. Now, that problem came to a head recently in Louisville, Ky. Last week, a combination of bus delays and technical malfunctions forced many schools to close temporarily, angering a lot of parents and stranding some students, who were left without a ride home. So why are many school districts struggling to find a few good bus drivers?

Molly McGee-Hewitt is here to tell us about that. She's a CEO and executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. Molly, this is the time of year where either students are back in school or about to go back to school. Why are so many school districts having a shortage of bus drivers right now?

MOLLY MCGEE-HEWITT: Well, I believe this is an ongoing shortage. So this year isn't unique, although I believe that this year is sort of the perfect storm for this issue to come out. The Louisville issue obviously brought some national attention to the issue. But really, this is an issue that's been going on pre-pandemic and before. There are not enough people at this moment interested in being bus drivers. And the position is not bringing to the profession the numbers of people we need. And I believe that's because of a variety of reasons.

MARTÍNEZ: What's been the reason why it hasn't been able to be at least fixed or maybe addressed in a more efficient way?

MCGEE-HEWITT: I believe that school districts across the country have been dealing with this issue and trying to deal with it for several years. I think during the pandemic, we obviously did not need the number of drivers that you normally would have. So we would have been recruiting and hiring during the pandemic had we been having school in the regular way. But that put a three-year hold in most school districts on hiring of bus drivers.

Also, most people who were bus drivers originally worked a split shift. They worked a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon, and they might have had other employment or they might have had home employment, like they might have had a farm or a ranch or something that they did in between times. Today, people are looking for a solid amount of time. That middle break does not work for most people. And also the compensation for this position has really not kept up with the need in the marketplace.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, some school districts say that they've solved this problem. We spoke with the superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, Monifa McKnight, and she told us her school district raised pay and guaranteed at least 30 hours of work each week for drivers. And that has helped recruit the number of drivers they needed for the school year. Let's hear what she had to say.

MONIFA MCKNIGHT: I think centering their value, their respect, and all the ways that you can elevate that in the school system was really important. And quite frankly, everybody had a chance to do that nationally when last year across the nation, we were all struggling with bus drivers.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Molly, what do you think? I mean, are school leaders just simply not paying drivers enough?

MCGEE-HEWITT: Well, you know, I think that is a part of the issue. I think that one of the parts is school districts have a finite pot of money that they have. And so they have a lot of calls. And because school districts are made up of people, over - usually in most school districts, over 80% of their budget goes into personnel costs. And so when you look at running a school district, and we look at teachers as being the heart of it and others that we're paying, sometimes people look at what I call the support staff or the transportation folks or other parts of what I call the business side of the house, and they look at it as less important or less of a priority.

The superintendent that you just quoted - she came up with a marvelous way for her district to do that. They looked at the salary. They looked at trying to improve working conditions, et cetera. And they also made it a priority for their district. And I think sometimes people think school bus drivers, and they just go, oh, no big deal. And I have to tell you, it is a big deal because we need to get our kids to school safely, and we need to take care of those professionals just like we take care of our classroom professionals.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Molly McGee-Hewitt, CEO and executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. Molly, thanks.

MCGEE-HEWITT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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