MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Eric Thornton, director of transportation for Montgomery Public Schools, said the system continues to face a transportation issue that school district’s across the nation have been battling for the past few years.
“Our issue is a nationwide issue,” said Thornton. “We have a bus driver shortage.”
Thornton said by the end of 2018, MPS hired 10 new drivers to fill vacant routes. According to Thornton, there are 220 routes with each driver on staff assigned to one of the routes. Since hiring the new drivers, Thornton said he has staffed 213 routes, meaning there are still seven vacancies.
“We have drivers that actually have to double up - which means they have to run their regular route, and after they run their regular route, they go and run the route we don’t have drivers for,” said Thornton. “Drivers covering vacant routes impact arrival times for students who are travelling to school.”
In addition to being short-staffed, Thornton said the issue becomes greater when drivers call out.
“There are days where I have 25 to 26 vacancies that have to be filled,” said Thornton. “It’s harder in the morning. In the afternoon, we let schools know by about 2 p.m. if there are going to be subs. We can’t do that in the morning.”
At such an early hour and dozens of students on each route, Thornton said there is not currently a way for him to inform parents that bus drivers are having to cover multiple shifts and delaying arrival times. Even if MPS hires seven additional drivers, Thornton said he would still be in a “compromising” position if even one driver were to call out.
“What would be ideal is if I had enough drivers, say seven to 10 sub drivers, that I could call when drivers are off," Thornton said.
Thornton said school districts' ability to recruit bus drivers typically goes hand-in-hand with the status of the economy. However, he also said the pay, which is typically $12-$15 an hour depending on experience, makes it difficult to recruit employees competitively. He also said there are a number of steps that go into becoming a bus driver that many people aren’t aware of.
While Thornton said his department cannot control how many people meet the requirements to become a bus driver for MPS, he said he is working to create a resource to help parents better keep track of how the buses are running.
“We’re going to install GPS on every bus we have,” said Thornton. “Once we do that, a parent will have the capability to look on their phone app and know where their child’s bus is. The GPS would ping every 30 seconds."
Thornton said he has reviewed about five companies in search of the right partnership to roll out the system and cell phone app. He said it will be done in the “very near future."