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Education

‘Treading water’: Anne Arundel schools struggle to fill bus driver vacancies despite hiring efforts

Despite recruitment and training efforts, the number of vacancies among Anne Arundel County school bus drivers has held steady more than two months into the academic year.

The system publishes a weekly update with the number of driver vacancies. Two days after school started, 75 vacancies were reported Aug. 31, and 69 were listed Wednesday. Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said in a statement that the system has been able to maintain, but not increase, staffing levels.

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“As has been stated, we are treading water,” Mosier said in an email.

Anne Arundel is not alone in its struggle — a shortage of bus drivers is affecting districts around the country.

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Added to the challenges, Superintendent Mark Bedell reported at the Nov. 2 Board of Education meeting that there has been a nearly 20 percent increase in bus service outages recently due to COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus.

However, there are new drivers in the pipeline. Mosier said about half of the 52 drivers in training right now will ultimately drive for AACPS. In addition to working with the county’s Office of Workforce Development to get more workers, the system is adjusting routes and pursuing the use of alternative vehicles.

The system is taking advantage of the General Assembly’s approval of the use of vans to transport students. The system plans to operate 40 vans starting in July; workers will be hired by contractors, as bus drivers are, but don’t need a commercial license.

In addition to those contracts, AACPS will have its own fleet of five to 10 vans in July.

The system is pursuing the emergency use of vans this school year. The more trips that can be switched from bus to van, the more commercial drivers will be freed to make other trips, Mosier said.

Vans could be used to transport students to nonpublic schools and to transport those who are homeless to their school of origin, if they have been displaced. County students attend nonpublic schools outside the county, including Sheppard Pratt, when they have a disability and need educational support not available in AACPS.

The Board of Education will review an emergency contract to provide van service at its Wednesday meeting, Mosier said. A request for bids to operate the 40 contracted vans starting in July was published last Monday.

So far this school year 4,000 children have been without bus service every day, with an additional 9,000 affected by outages on some level. To equitably distribute the hardship, Bedell has said students who have been without bus service this year will get service after the semester change. That also means some of those with service will lose it.

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Mosier said the system expects the number of vacancies to fall before Jan. 25, but if there isn’t improvement, thousands of students will lose service at the academic year’s midpoint.

At community events, Bedell has said the trade is in the spirit of fairness.

“Other families are going to have to take the hit like other people have,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Mosier said the parameters of who will gain and lose bus service should be published by mid-December.

The system uses bus contractors to transport most of its students to and from schools. That means when the system needs more drivers and buses, it solicits bid proposals publicly from companies, considers each bid, selects a winner and requests approval from the Board of Education to award the contract.

The system works with 14 contractors that collectively are responsible for 585 routes. Between Aug. 29 and Oct. 17, there were 2,171 instances of missed service. Companies pay $100 in liquidated damages for each of these occurrences, so the system has collected $217,100. The system is not paying contractors for routes they do not drive, and has accrued $358,670 in suspended payments.

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The money collected through liquidated damages will be used to implement the van program, and money from suspended payments will be used to purchase fuel.

Mosier said the performance of contractors has varied.

When looking at the 33 days of school from Aug. 29 to Oct. 17, three companies have missed at least 20% of their routes. Annapolis Bus Company, which has 85 routes per day, missed 22%; R.E. Wilson and Sons, which has 39 routes, missed 27%; and Huber’s II, which has 29 routes, missed 30%.

Two companies have not had an outage yet this year — Chesapeake Charters, which runs 60 routes, and Lonergan’s Bus Service, which runs 61 routes.

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The system recently solicited bids for 41 bus routes, which have contracts that are set to expire June 30. The award of the contract or contracts related to those routes is pending, and will come before the Board of Education.

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Mosier said right now seven of those 41 routes are not in service.

“Final awards have not been made, but we are considering the contractors lack of responsibility as we evaluate the award decision,” he said in an email.

Jubb’s Bus Service has missed about 12% of its 50 routes, according to data provided by AACPS. Randall Jubb said he could cover everything if not for the change of start times this school year, which compressed the bus schedule.

“It made it worse, no matter what they say,” he said.

As the Board of Education considers its fiscal 2024 operating budget, Jubb would like to see more money budgeted for compensation increases for bus drivers and attendants. AACPS has said one cause of the driver shortage is competing employers offering better compensation.

“We need to have an attractive job to move our kids,” Jubb said.


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