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Howard school board approves incentive pay, signing bonuses for current and new bus drivers to address shortage

The Howard County Board of Education voted Thursday evening to address the bus driver shortage that has affected the school system since the start of the academic year.

As a means to retain and attract drivers, the board unanimously approved amendments to transportation contracts to provide financial incentives for school bus drivers and attendants, according to a news release.

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This action comes a week after Howard County Executive Calvin Ball committed $2 million of what the county receives from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan to retention bonuses for existing bus drivers and attendants and signing bonuses to attract new hires.

The remaining costs will be covered with transportation savings in the school system’s budget, according to the release.

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“I’m appreciative of the collaborative efforts of Superintendent Dr. Michael Martirano and our Board of Education to work with the county and resolve this issue quickly and fairly,” Ball wrote in an email. “Our bus drivers should be fairly compensated for their important work that is provided to our children during this critical time of recovery from the COVID pandemic. We have faced many challenges during this pandemic and as always we have overcome these obstacles by working together.”

The additional funding will provide $5,000 in one-time incentives for all current bus drivers and attendants; a $1,500 signing bonus and up to a total of $2,500 in monthly incentive payments for all newly hired bus drivers and attendants; $3,000 over three months to help bus contractors recruit and hire new staff for the approximately 95 remaining vacancies; and a 10% payment to bus contractors for each incentive bonus paid to bus drivers and attendants for overhead costs, according to the release.

The initial $2,500 incentive bonuses for current bus drivers and attendants will be distributed to all bus contractors within 10 days of the amended contracts’ execution, and the remaining $2,500 will be paid monthly through the end of the 2021-22 school year.

The school system contracts its services to several local vendors who will distribute the bonuses to their employees and will be required to provide verification to the school system that bus drivers and attendants receive their payments on time.

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Since the start of the school year, the school system has experienced a shortage of approximately 95 bus drivers. The shortage has required many double bus routes, causing students to arrive at school early or remain later at the end of the school day.

The shortage is not unique to Howard County, as school districts statewide and nationwide are having the same problem. Many school systems are pointing to COVID-19 as a main reason for the shortage. Some drivers did not return for the 2021-22 school year as the coronavirus remains a health concern, especially to older adults who make up a significant portion of many bus driver pools.

The Howard school system has implemented a number of initiatives, including hiring fairs to attract new drivers and staff in other shortage areas such as custodians, food services, lunch, paraeducators, recess monitors and student assistants.

“The agreement [Thursday] approved by our Board of Education is an important step to ensure that we are able to keep our current drivers and bring new drivers onboard as we examine long-term solutions,” Martirano said.

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