School bus drivers, companies crunched by low pay, lengthy training

Correction: The former owners of Hilton Bus sold the company to spend more time with their family. An incorrect reason was listed in the original version of this story. This was a reporting error, and we apologize for the mistake.

School bus driver Terry Fenwick said he loves the daily teaching moments with students. Whether he can remind them to say good morning to their teachers, or simply give a younger child a hug, he looks out for the kids in the Dover area as a driver in the Capital School District.

“You can see when a child is hurting, when a child lacks a father figure,” Fenwick said.

However, his desire to help others was born in a place of pain. Fenwick said he decided to become a bus driver 11 years ago after his son took his own life.

“The tragic loss of my son and not being in his life like the way I should’ve been, it was something that haunted me for a while,” Fenwick said. “I wanted to do something for another child that I couldn’t do for my own.”

A retired Marine Corps veteran, Fenwick volunteered to take a pay cut so that he could work more hours but not exceed the salary cap set by Veterans Affairs.

“I will always drive as long as I can,” he said.

Although many bus drivers are retired and don’t depend on their paycheck for all their income, not every driver has the same story.

For instance, Joyce Peterson, a transportation specialist at Red Clay School District in Wilmington, became a driver 27 years ago so she could work in the mornings and afternoons, but be home when her children didn’t have school.

Lamont Gorman joined Red Clay this June as a driver and Peterson’s assistant, but he started driving 15 years ago as his career choice.

“I’ve always been in love with school buses,” Gorman said. “I had a really amazing bus driver, and she made the job seem fun.”

While Delaware is home to people like Gorman who want to become bus drivers, contractors and district transportation supervisors, like Bruce Ashby at Capital School District, said bus driver shortages remain a challenge this school year.

“Everybody’s still grasping at trying to attract drivers,” Ashby said.

About a dozen interviewed bus contractors and transportation supervisors said that prospective drivers face several barriers, including a long hiring/training process, low pay, odd hours and a lack of full-time benefits.

Before getting behind the wheel

Vincent Ikwuagwy’s company ASA Transportation owns eight buses that are under contract to charter schools in Dover. He said that the long training and certification process often deters prospective drivers from applying.

“The requirement to become a school bus driver has become more stringent,” he said. “Before you become a school bus driver, you go through so much hassle.”

Tina Luff, the recruiting and training specialist at Hilton Bus LLC in Camden, explained the steps a prospective driver would take after expressing interest.

Take and pass four tests free of charge at the Department of Motor Vehicles. These tests are found in the commercial driver's license handbook.

Get a permit and take a road skills test. The bus company will arrange the road skills test, which can take up to two months to schedule.

Have a fingerprint background check. Results typically take two to three weeks to come in.

Get a physical from a doctor.

Attend a two-day training course, six hours per day as required by federal regulations. The state offers these courses once a month in every county.

During this often two-month process, Hilton Bus offers hands-on training, which gives drivers some income while they wait for certification.

Still, these requirements can cost a driver somewhere between $1,200 and $1,500, Luff said.

Dave Zickafoose, one of the owners of Hilton Bus and a member of the National School Transportation Association, said some bus drivers don’t think they get paid enough to make the hiring process worth their while.

“Compensation hasn’t kept up with the new requirements,” Zickafoose said.

Reworking the formula

To calculate how much money school districts need to pay their bus contractors each year, the Department of Education uses a 40-year-old formula.

Each fiscal year, the department makes budget recommendations based on this formula and projected growth, said Tyler Bryan, an education associate for school transportation at the Department of Education. He confirmed that the formula has remained largely the same since it was written in the late 1970s.

“The main components exist,” he said.

Zickafoose and other contractors said that running a bus business has become more expensive since the 1970s. For example, a bus driver back then could start working immediately with a regular driver’s license, Zickafoose said.

“The compensation formula for the bus routes needs to be adjusted in the state of Delaware,” he said.

Several years ago, the state convened a public transportation work group, with representatives from contractors and school districts, to help the formula reflect these changing costs.

Two years ago, the group recommended an allowance that would cover higher operational costs. The state agreed to cover these as long as the payments were spread out over four years, and this is the second year of that phase-in, Bryan said.

The recently passed appropriations bill for fiscal year 2020 will raise the public school transportation budget by about 9%. Last year, the funds increased by 12%.

Representatives of contractors Hilton Bus and Beachy Transportation, owned by Jason Raksnis of Harrington, said the increased funds helped them front some of the costs of hiring a driver.

Still, Hilton Bus manager Shay Edwards, said those funds don’t go far enough.

“I don’t get enough money that I can pay the drivers what I should be able to,” Edwards said. 

In fiscal year 2019, Delaware spent $748.44 per student on public transportation, according to the state budget and 2017-2018 student population statistics from the Delaware Department of Education. 

While the NCES does not have readily available data beyond the 2013-2014 school year, Delaware’s average expenditures have consistently swooped below the national average for more than a decade.

Zickafoose said some national companies refuse to come into the state unless the formula is swapped for a bid process.

Raksnis said the formula fails to cover overhead costs.

Many contractors in the 1970s were farmers and operated one or two buses off their own land. While Bryan said that a few of these small businesses still exist, more contractors like Raksnis must cover additional costs, such as renting space.

“I would like to see a new formula written because the times have changed so much, [and] it’s more common to have the overhead to run this business. That’s not my fault or anyone else’s,” Raksnis said.

Edwards said that he has noticed smaller bus companies struggling to stay afloat.

“You can’t give drivers a pay increase if you’re making negative money,” he said.

School district transportation supervisors, like Harold Walters at Indian River School District in southeastern Sussex County, also said the pay is not attractive to people looking for work in a good economy.

“I know one part of it is the money,” Walters said. “The drivers don’t get what they probably deserve because it’s a very important, high-level, high-stress job, with a precious commodity that we’re transporting.”

Giving drivers more routes

While contractors and transportation supervisors push for legislative action, school districts have found ways to ease the driver shortage.

Indian River School District and Red Clay School District have both adopted a three-tiered bell schedule, for example. By changing the start and end times of schools in the district, one school bus can make trips to three different schools.

This makes a difference for districts like Red Clay, which had up to hour-long delays two years ago. Transportation supervisor Kelly Shahan said the three-tiered system required fewer drivers and improved efficiency.

“It worked out really well,” she said. “We ran pretty much anywhere from 95 to 99 percent on time.”

Two years ago, Joyce Peterson worked in dispatch, but she said she was pulled away from her desk almost every day to drive a school bus. Under the new bell schedule, she said she only had to substitute drive once all year.

“Last year was amazing compared to the year before, and I predict this year to be even better now that we’re settled into it,” Peterson said.

However, some like Zickafoose have concerns that making school start-times earlier might negatively affect children’s education. For instance, studies by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy for Pediatrics find that middle and high school students perform best when starting at 8:30 a.m. or later.

“If you want a school district to be very successful, you have to start hacking away at everything that’s not a core competency,” Zickafoose said, adding that he believes school districts’ expertise is in teaching students, not transporting them.

Still, tripling the number of routes a bus driver can drive solved Red Clay’s bus driver shortage. Not only that, but drivers can now work for six hours, which means 95% of Red Clay’s drivers are getting full benefits, Peterson said.

“Other drivers were seeking us out because they realized ‘I could do the same job for Red Clay and get more hours and benefits,’” Shahan said.

Some districts own buses

All four transportation supervisors said their school district owned some buses. This happens when a contractor turns in routes that they can’t cover, and the school district is forced to pick it up themselves, said Caesar Rodney School District transportation supervisor Jason Bonner.

“My choices are to take it myself, or tell the parents that your child doesn’t get a ride,” Bonner said. While all of Bonner’s drivers work as casual-seasonal employees and don’t receive benefits like Red Clay, he said that he can pay drivers more than contractors can.

School districts get reimbursed for school transportation differently than contractors because the state buys the buses and covers their insurance, Bryan said.

Some contractors like Ikwuagwy said that the school districts have gone into competition with the bus companies, especially when it comes to attracting bus drivers.

“Bus companies should be able to pay the same thing [as school districts],” Ikwuagwy said. “It should be equitable.”

Ashby manages Capital School District’s fleet of 33 buses, but he said that wasn’t his intention. He wants to work toward increasing the formula, so contractors can stay in business, he said.

“I don’t feel that any district wants to be in the bus business completely,” Ashby said.

Another way that Red Clay School District has attracted drivers is by investing in technology for the buses and empowering their drivers, Shahan said.

With tablets installed on each bus, Red Clay drivers can not only clock in and out, but also keep track of attendance, and know which students have special needs or must be met at the bus stop. The tablets also include GPS for substitute drivers unsure of their routes.

“I think it makes them [the bus drivers] more confident,” Peterson said.

While school districts like Red Clay can find creative ways to invest in their drivers, contractors still look to the state for a change in funding.

“The underlying issue to me is the state doesn’t value what we’re providing,” Raksnis said.