CMS asks families for patience as district works to fill bus driver vacancies

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools started the year with more bus driver openings than anticipated a week ago, as the number of vacancies doubled from 15 last Wednesday to 39 on the first day of school.

Superintendent Earnest Winston said that the district expects to fill those roles quickly. Along with the students heading back to the classroom, Winston said a new class of bus drivers began their training Monday as well. Additionally, five more drivers are expected to start the job later this week.

“Our transportation team has been making tremendous strides in filling the vacancies,” Winston said. “Parents and families can rest assured we have a qualified, certified adult on every school bus.”

CMS’s bus operation is sprawling and complicated, with many students in magnet programs traveling a long distance across the county each day. In total, the district operates more than 1,100 buses. Winston asked parents and families to be patient as the system starts up again and works out its kinks.

“We will have some delays, but we will get better each and every day,” Winston said.

Drivers leave for other job opportunities, district spokeswoman Renee McCoy said. Many go on to take higher paying jobs as drivers for other agencies, such as the Charlotte Area Transit System.

Last year, CMS tried to address the shortage of drivers with a $2.7 million plan to increase driver pay. The move brought driver salaries up from $12.87 an hour to $15, but that still falls short of the CATS starting salary of $17.68 an hour. CMS drivers also work only when school is in session, during the designated route times, while other jobs offer a full-time schedule.

Substitute drivers will fill in for unstaffed routes until drivers are hired for them, McCoy said. CMS is doing better than this time last year when it comes to driver openings — the 2018-2019 school year began with 66 driver vacancies.

One school bus was involved in a collision, Winston said, after a motorcyclist ran into the back of the bus on Albemarle Road. No one was injured in the crash, he said. Winston said he did anticipate some delays as drivers get started and adjust to their routes, and he asked drivers and other motorists to exercise caution near school buses.

“We want to make sure that every child gets on the bus that he or she is supposed to,” he said. “And so sometimes I would rather be delayed and make sure that we do things right versus rushing it, because we know what the outcomes are when we rush things.”

Winston began his day at one of the district’s bus lots, where he greeted drivers as they headed out on their routes, before moving on to visit CMS schools across the district. At Joseph W. Grier Academy, Winston joined community and business partners in welcoming students back to the classroom.

Office Depot donated more than 1,000 backpacks and gift cards for school supplies to Grier, and Winston helped volunteers hand them out to eager students.

“It truly takes a village to do this work successfully,” Winston said.

Annie Ma covers education for the Charlotte Observer. She previously worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Chalkbeat New York, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Oregonian. She grew up in Florida and graduated from Dartmouth College.