All bus drivers get raises as CMS struggles to get kids to and from school on time

With bus driver shortages continuing to disrupt life for thousands of families and educators every day, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on Monday announced a $2.7 million plan to boost driver pay.

Starting pay will go from $12.87 to $15 an hour, with higher-paid drivers getting a 50-cent hourly bump, CMS Transportation Director Adam Johnson said.

That still won’t match wages for the city of Charlotte’s Charlotte Area Transit System drivers, who start at about $17.68 an hour, but “at least it gets us in the ballpark,” Johnson said.

Six weeks into the school year, 67 of 1,088 driver jobs remain vacant, with the district losing drivers almost as fast as it can hire them, Johnson said. And about 30 drivers are absent on any given day, leaving CMS with about 100 routes to fill with substitutes or temporarily combine with other routes, he said.

That translates to 2,000 to 3,000 bus-riders getting to school at least 15 minutes late each day, Johnson said, with 5,000 to 6,000 getting home at least 15 minutes late. “It’s not isolated to one area,” he said. “It’s spread out.”

“We certainly understand the frustration level with parents and school administrators, families that are certainly wondering where the bus might be,” said Johnson, who says he’s among many in his department who have driven buses even though that’s not their regular job. “We want to say to them, we certainly appreciate you being willing to work with us. Please know we have a plan in place now.”

In the Ballantyne Country Club neighborhood of south Charlotte, for instance, parents say the driver who took their children to Ballantyne Elementary resigned. Last week, they said, the morning bus was significantly late every morning, sometimes by as much as 40 minutes, as the district resorted to a strategy CMS calls “double-backs.” That means a bus drops off one load of kids, then heads out for a second run serving the same school.

Meanwhile, the parents said, the bus to and from Community House Middle School was closer to on time in the morning but much later in the afternoon.

Late buses might sound like a minor inconvenience. But each morning delay can make parents late to work or leave children standing at a stop unsupervised. Students miss the free breakfast served at all schools, while teachers must delay taking attendance and adjust to kids arriving after the bell rings.

Afternoon delays — which tend to be worst at the late-start schools like Community House, which runs from 9:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. — mean teachers and students end their day sitting in a gym, waiting for buses that have been delayed taking kids home from schools that dismiss earlier. And parents often grow anxious, especially if they can’t get through to anyone at school or transportation offices.

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That’s not uncommon, transportation officials said, because people who would normally work in transportation offices are pulled to drive buses if they have a commercial driver’s license, leaving some offices with only one person to work the radios to drivers and handle calls from parents. Meanwhile, school secretaries face a barrage of calls.

“We definitely understand why parents are discouraged and frustrated,” said Wendy Parker, manager of the Garinger High transportation area.

Johnson said since mid-August CMS has hired 105 drivers but lost 94.

CMS Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ cited the area’s low unemployment rate and labor shortage as the reason drivers are leaving. The original starting pay of $12.87 wasn’t competitive with CATS or freight drivers, he said.

“In our market ... competition for drivers is extremely competitive. We’re a transportation hub,” he said.

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The raises weren’t part of the CMS 2018-19 budget, but Johnson said the money can be pulled from salaries that were budgeted for more than 50 transportation jobs the district hasn’t been able to fill, such as for permanent substitute drivers.

Russ said the raises are just a first step in an ongoing plan to recruit and retain bus drivers, who must not only have a commercial driver’s license but pass a background check and drug test. He said it illustrates the district’s strategy of improving performance in departments that may not be directly involved in teaching but affect how well students and teachers can perform.

Last year CMS struggled to fill bus mechanic jobs, a challenge that was highlighted when two buses caught fire and one lost its rear wheels in traffic. Johnson said the district boosted mechanic pay, and only one mechanic job is currently vacant.

Last year CMS had eight of 42 mechanic jobs unfilled as of mid-November, the Observer reported at the time.

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms