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The empty seat in front

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[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Theresa Davidson cleans her school bus Monday at her home in Valrico. "The route they gave me is far from my home, the pay is very bad, the benefits are terrible and the principals and district offer no backup." 
By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2000


TAMPA- The CB radios on school buses crackle regularly with the informal notices about drivers leaving to take new jobs or to return to old ones made dreamy after a stint behind the wheel of a yellow bus.

The reasons invariably are the same: better pay, better hours and most of all, no screaming kids.

As the economy continues to create waves of new jobs, many more lucrative and less stressful than school bus driving, school districts are scrambling to fill vacant drivers' seats.

In Hillsborough County, which has the ninth-largest fleet of buses in the country, 48 driver slots had to be covered last Monday, not an unusually high number. Meanwhile, drivers keep quitting. So far this year, 60 of the district's 1,067 drivers have left.

"We have a shortage of drivers just like we have a shortage of workers in all areas of the school district," said Randy Poindexter, an assistant superintendent.

With many retirements on the horizon, the problem is expected to grow more acute in coming years.

Hillsborough County is hardly alone.

"It's happening everywhere," said Karen Finkel, executive director of the National School Transportation Association in Alexandria, Va. "It's been building since the economy began booming and it's gotten worse every year."

The shortage in Hillsborough County is more than a personnel woe. It is making some kids late for school.

Because there are so few drivers, there are no substitutes. So when a driver is sick or quits, the remaining drivers must cover the route, meaning two runs for some drivers. At times, kids picked up on the second run arrive late to school, a frustration for principals and drivers alike.

"There are days when the kids are 10 to 15 minutes late," said Joseph Green, the principal of Cypress Creek Elementary School, who noted that since he complained to the district, late arrivals are far less frequent.

For the bus drivers, the lack of substitutes means pressure to not call in sick, much less take a personal day.

"I used to get up every morning, put on my uniform and really look forward to work. Now there are days I really don't like going to work because it's going to mean doubling up. And I feel guilty taking a day off because I know it will put pressure on my co-workers," said Sandra Rushing, a bus driver in Hillsborough County for 20 years.

For other drivers, a perceived increase in rider rowdiness is a major factor driving the exodus. This school year, 841 incidents of misbehavior on buses, including object throwing, have been recorded.

"Can you imagine driving along Highway 60 during rush hour with 50 kids on your bus?" asked Leslie Albach, 33, who is in her second year of driving and debating whether to do a third. "I could go back to my old job and make 20 cents more each hour."

According to the district, school bus driver starting pay is $8.67 an hour, plus benefits like health and life insurance. Drivers are guaranteed six hours of work each day during the school year.

They must have five years' driving experience and at least a 10th grade education and must have completed the writing portion of the commercial driver's license test. The district provides 50 hours of training, which drivers have been known to take with them to commercial outfits that pay more.

The district has stepped up bus driver recruitment efforts in recent years, asking principals to put out the word to parents and advertising at community gatherings.

"We've become a bit more aggressive in our recruitment," said Karen Strickland, the director of transportation for the district. "We've made more of an effort to let people know about all the wonderful opportunities we have to offer."

Like many of her peers, Theresa Davidson signed onto school bus driving to spend more time with her three children. With the school holidays off, she figured the job would be a perfect match for her lifestyle.

It has, she says, been anything but.

"The route they gave me is far from my home, the pay is very bad, the benefits are terrible and the principals and district offer no backup when these kids act up," she said. "Overall, it's been very disappointing."

Davidson, who is in her first year of bus driving, is mulling her options. Lately, she said, her old job at a printing shop is looking better and better.

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