Jackson Drake had to spend a recent ride home from Parkville Middle School squatting on the floor of his school bus. Another afternoon, he had to sit on another student’s lap. A few times, the 11-year-old boy said he had to cram in with three other students on one seat.
Baltimore County, like districts across the region, faces a shortage in school bus drivers. That’s led to complaints of overcrowded and delayed buses during the first three weeks of school.
Jackson’s parents recognize the school system is operating with about 50 fewer drivers than needed. But at the end of the day, they say, what matters is that their son is safe when he travels home. It horrifies them to think about what could happen should the school bus get into an accident while their son is sitting in the aisle.
“We repeatedly hear the excuses about needing more employees,” said Jessica Drake, his mother. “But why would a bus move when children don’t have seats? No one can answer me.”
With people adjusting to new routes, transportation problems are a perennial issue at the start of any school year and typically improve as summer turns to fall. But parents and local officials say the past three or so years have been especially bad.
Baltimore County schools officials say they’re working to bolster their bus driver ranks, smooth out beginning-of-the-year kinks and address delays. A district spokesman encouraged any family with concerns to reach out to the transportation office, which he said investigates all issues and makes adjustments.
“In a perfect world, we would have more than 800 bus drivers,” wrote Jess Grim, the county’s transportation director, in an emailed statement. “We are actively hiring additional drivers and would like to add 50 to our team.”
School districts across the country are struggling to recruit and retain enough drivers to get kids safely to school on time. Earlier this year, a school in Maine had to cancel classes because it couldn’t find enough bus drivers to pick up students. Other school systems offer signing bonuses or look to custodians and teachers to fill in.
A similar problem is playing out in Anne Arundel County, where parents crowded a school board meeting earlier this month with complaints about transportation. Buses there have been forced to double back on routes, which makes kids late, or combine bus routes, which can lead to overcrowding.
Anne Arundel needs about 20 more bus drivers. It’s been especially hard to fill the ranks this year, said spokesman Bob Mosier, because of a new state law requiring more stringent background and reference checks.
“The practical impact of that is that our kids are safer, which is great,” he said. “One of the negative impacts is that the extended hiring process can last up to 20 days.”
Officials there say it’s also hard to maintain certified drivers. Anne Arundel’s bus contractors pay around $20 an hour and drivers can find jobs outside the system that get them more hours, more money and overtime.
“One of the negative things about a positive economy is people have other options,” Mosier said. “There are other options than driving for three hours or so in the morning and then having a lull and driving another 3 hours in the afternoon.”
A Howard County schools spokesman said the district also faces a shortage of about three or four dozen drivers. Officials there have “leveraged several operational solutions to make up for the shortage that include scheduling buses to make multiple runs by serving schools that have different start and dismissal times,” Brian Bassett wrote in an email.
Harford County Public Schools uses mostly contractors, who haven’t reported a significant shortage in drivers, to shuttle students around. But the district does own a smaller fleet of buses that are used to transport students with special needs.
Harford transportation director Cathy Bendis said the county has about eight driver vacancies. She said she’s had to dispatch some of the transportation department’s office staff to cover routes, taking them away from their other duties.
“We’re doing whatever we need to do to make sure kids are getting to school,” she said.
Bendis compared the dearth of school bus drivers to the state’s teacher shortage.
“The certification and requirements are not always commensurate with the pay level,” she said of both jobs.
In Baltimore County, regular bus drivers are paid $16.20 an hour. There’s also a fleet of substitute bus drivers who are paid $12.24 an hour.
School board member Julie Henn said the district is looking to improve driver compensation and working conditions, part of an effort to boost retention. The district spends more than $78 million on student transportation services, with about $48 million of that going to salary and wages.
The most recent budget included $250,000 for increased compensation for substitute bus drivers and attendants and $919,000 to cover more bus routes and inflation costs.
The board will hear a presentation on transportation issues Tuesday at its public meeting. Parents are expected to come testify with complaints.
A county parent has assembled a spreadsheet of transportation complaints with 62 submissions so far this year.
An advance copy of the transportation report lists three reasons why drivers are late: traffic, breakdowns and attendance.
“It kills us when drivers call out,” Henn said. “When drivers call out, not only are we scrambling, but students are then late to school and late coming home and it really throws everything into a lurch.”
Over the last three years, the county has hired 216 bus drivers but lost 215, according to the transportation report.
While a handful of those drivers who left either retired or were fired, the vast majority simply resigned.
As the county grapples with what to do, parents and local officials remain frustrated.
“I’m tired of this,” said County Councilman David Marks, who represents a district where overcrowding is particularly bad. “I’m tired of this problem every September.”