A shortage of drivers means double duty for some and no shortage of work for relief drivers. But before applying, you must like children.
By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published September 16, 2004
PORT RICHEY - Marilyn McBride has been busy this school year. Not that she's complaining.
Since the start of school Aug. 9, the Pasco County school bus relief driver has had a route every school day.
Though her position requires her to fill in when regular bus drivers are absent, there's been no shortage of work.
"Even with that, I love it," McBride said at the start of her afternoon route Tuesday. She's been doing this job for seven years and says with the busing of 32,500 children, the need for drivers is clearer than ever.
Absenteeism in the bus driving ranks is running 16 percent on average this school year, according to district Transportation Director Mike Park.
That's compared to approximately 5.5 percent per day this year among teachers. Additionally, 43 of the 429 Pasco County school bus driver positions were unfilled Tuesday. There just aren't enough Marilyn McBrides to fill that need.
That means everyone in the district's transportation department who holds a driving certificate is probably behind the wheel, including 24 supervisors - the people who normally plan routes, take phone calls and complaints from parents, and evaluate bus drivers.
"We're just trying to keep our heads above water right now," Park said.
Some drivers are pulling double duty, running an extra route a day, increasing the chances that children arrive at school or home later. The arrangement means instead of two buses heading out at the same time, one driver picks up and delivers one busload and then goes back out and does it again for the same school. On Tuesday, for example, five west Pasco routes alone were doubled up, leaving potentially 300 children to get home later than usual, Park said.
Parental communication is falling through the cracks as a result of supervisors being away from the office, he said. Frustrations are mounting.
Driver shortages are not new. And they are by no means limited to Pasco County.
The ebb and flow of driver supply and demand often mirrors the economy, according to Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation in New York.
"Typically, when the economy is going well or at least better, the shortages become more severe," Martin said.
In Pasco, school bus drivers earn between $8.80 and $13.65 an hour, depending on how much experience they have. They receive a full insurance package, six paid holidays and, after they are hired, receive compensation for the 10 days of mandatory training they go through prior to becoming employed.
But the thing that makes the job most attractive to some is the same thing that turns others away: the 60-plus children who climb aboard the yellow shuttles at least two times each day.
"It's called school bus driver," said Jack Greene, Pasco's supervisor of transportation operations, "but it's all about the kids."
Patsy Highers can testify to that.
For eight years, she has been the first school employee children see in the morning and the last they see in the afternoon. This year, her workdays begin at 6:25 a.m. and end at 4:50 p.m., with a midday break. She transports children from River Ridge Middle/High and Calusa and Marlowe elementary schools in an unairconditioned bus. While others say they don't understand how she can do it and smile, she does.
The key to sanity and survival?
"Patience," Highers said. But even she concedes that navigating Pasco's busy roads while managing its children's behavior isn't for everyone.
"There's nothing normal about this job," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, who has helped establish attendance incentives and hopes to begin a new bus driver mentoring program this year.
Between the hours, the driving conditions and the required job qualifications, applicants often find they are ill-suited to the stress.
Drivers must have good driving records, undergo background checks and ongoing random drug testing. The process from application to being hired can take six weeks, and only about four of 10 applicants make the cut, Greene said.
But Greene and Park are putting out the all-call for people who like children, want hours that mirror school hours and are fine working 188 days a year.
"Give it a try," Park said. "We can teach anyone to drive a bus." It's the liking children part that's key, he said.
Twenty-two newly trained hires will be joining the ranks this week. But more will be needed. The next training begins Oct. 20 and applications are available at bus garages all over the county.
Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org