Aug 30, 2023 - News

Charlotte-Mecklenburg bus driver shortage leaves students waiting

CMS bus

Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ bus service continues to suffer amid a nationwide driver shortage and insufficient wages. Students are the ones feeling the ramifications, from missing the bus to coming home after dark.

  • Of the 836 school buses that rolled out on Monday, 20% did not arrive on time. The last student didn’t make it home until well after 8pm.
  • CMS is optimistic operations will run smoothly by next week. On a normal day, about 92% of buses should show up on time, CMS transportation director Adam Johnson tells Axios.

Why it matters: CMS bus drivers are entrusted with taking more than 100,000 students to and from school safely every day.

CMS doesn’t have much leeway to increase pay to mitigate driver shortages — drivers make about $17.75 an hour as of January, per WBTV. So the system is turning to less-than-desirable solutions, like express stops, which require students to be dropped off at a certain location.

  • Without express stops, CMS would have more than 200 driver vacancies, Johnson said.
  • Right now CMS is 70-plus drivers short, with 28 vacancies and 44 employees on medical leave.

What’s happening: Vacancies aren’t the only reason buses ran late this week. Johnson says school staff will take extra time during the first few days of school to ensure all students are on the correct bus. “There are times that mistakes happen and buses have to go back to school,” he says. “We were late leaving the schools as much as 30 to 45 minutes.”

  • Most buses serve two or more schools in the afternoon, so any delays in service trickle down.
  • Traffic and car accidents (but not bus accidents) also contributed to late arrivals, per CMS.

If a driver doesn’t show up after more than 15 to 30 minutes, parents can track buses on its Here Comes the Bus app or contact the transportation offices at 980-343-6715.

Roy Cooper CMS
Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Driving the news: North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper visited the CMS bus lot on Wilkinson Boulevard Tuesday to announce $1 million in emergency funding for bus driver trainers.

  • “Every single school district … they are scrambling to find bus drivers,” Cooper said. “You just can’t put anybody in a bus to drive it. You got to make sure they go through the training program.”
  • The money, from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, will go toward seven temporary trainer positions, $3,000 retention bonuses for current DMV trainers, two school buses to use for training and trainers’ safety coats.
  • Cooper hopes state lawmakers will make the seven temporary positions with the North Carolina Department of Transportation permanent in the state budget.

Yes, but: The appropriation falls short of what’s needed to recruit and retain bus drivers, Cooper said.

  • “Getting the drivers in the door or applicants — that’s our first challenge,” Johnson said. But, he added, “The more driver trainers that are out there, the faster that process becomes and we can get those drivers out.”
Roy Cooper CMS
Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

What they’re saying: Gov. Cooper also spoke to CMS bus drivers about the challenges they’re facing. He has asked the legislature for a 9.5% pay raise for bus drivers in the budget, along with a $1,500 retention bonus. But Republicans have a veto-proof supermajority in the General Assembly and aren’t expected to compromise with the Democratic governor.

  • CMS bus drivers told Cooper that they also need more opportunities to climb the ladder. They also said they need more support to deal with students’ behavioral issues.
  • Parents dislike CMS’ new express stops program, one driver said.

Zoom in: There are 42 express stops, where some magnet high school students must be dropped off by their parents. Some families switched schools because they said the stops are too far away or feel unsafe, our news partners at WBTV reported.

The big picture: There are more than 5,000 teacher vacancies statewide, including over 450 in CMS.

  • “There is a long list of investments that we need to make that will make teaching a better experience,” Cooper said. “But until we tackle them, it’s going to be hard to recruit.”
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