County school bus drivers blame shortage on low pay
BY MARK BETANCOURT
On a chilly afternoon in early February, Mirna Lorena Navarrete sat on a low wall near her second grader’s school bus stop in West Hyattsville. This is her post on most days, waiting for a bus that’s often an hour and a half late dropping off her daughter, who attends César Chávez Dual Spanish Immersion School, about six minutes away. “Sometimes it’s really cold,” Navarrete said in Spanish. The low temperatures are bearable while the sun is still up, she added, but not later, especially if it’s snowing. One day last October, she waited three hours.
Other parents have taken to driving their kids to and from school, but Navarrete has no car. Sometimes her brother-in-law or another parent picks up her daughter, but if no one is available, she said, “the only option is to wait until the bus appears.”
Delayed, waylaid or simply missing buses have become commonplace in Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), which has been hit hard by the driver shortage snarling school transportation across the country. Specialty schools like César Chávez must transport students from across large areas, and often bear the brunt of busing problems. Many parents have built informal networks to share information about the whereabouts of the buses carrying their children (they say the district’s bus tracking app, StopFinder, rarely works). According to César Chávez PTO president Kate Culzoni, she and other parents have resorted to sending their children to school with tracking devices. Parents have rearranged their work days to accommodate the bus roulette, even going so far as to cancel after-school care because buses were failing to drop off their kids before the facilities closed.
In interviews with the Life & Times, bus drivers cited one main factor preventing the county from hiring and keeping new drivers — the low pay.
‘I need a driver behind every wheel.’
According to school district records, the week school started last August, one in four of the district’s bus routes had no one to drive it. Even beyond the hiring shortfall, 10% of drivers call in sick every day, said David Hill, the county schools’ transportation operations supervisor. Hill said that he and his staff constantly adjust and combine routes to fill the gaps. In the mornings, drivers have to start so early to cover extra routes they often arrive at stops before students do.
Between October 2022 and March 2023, most weeks saw an on-time morning pickup rate of less than 50% countywide, the records showed. Afternoon buses, which carry fewer students because of after-school activities, did only slightly better. PGCPS doesn’t track bus performance at all for the first month of the school year. Hill said that route adjustments are so chaotic during that time, largely due to last-minute enrollments, that his office is unable to determine how bad the delays are.
According to several drivers, the workload can be overwhelming, especially when they have to take on unfamiliar routes. “There were times I would have to pick up four bus loads from one school,” said Gina, a former PGCPS bus driver who asked not to use her real name. “I’d have to get the route descriptions faxed from the bus lot to the school, and then figure out the most time-efficient way to drop off each set of kids to their parents.”
Some parents have given up on their assigned bus routes. The final straw for César Chávez parent Lee Cheyne was when his son’s bus arrived after dark. The kindergartner was the only student left riding as the driver searched for his stop. When his son got off the bus, Cheyne saw that he was on the verge of tears. “He knew it wasn’t supposed to be dark when he was getting home from school,” Cheyne said. Eventually, Cheyne placed his son in a different aftercare, farther from home, because its bus route was more consistent.
Late buses are more than just an inconvenience. More than one parent told the Life & Times their children had guided lost bus drivers to their homes, a violation of district safety protocol. In a PTO meeting last November, Chávez principal Tyrone Harris told parents that students were losing up to 200 minutes of instruction time per student per week due to late buses. To stem such losses, the district has been adjusting morning bell times for some schools.
This fall, PGCPS will be taking advantage of a 2022 change in Maryland state law that allows school districts to use passenger vans to transport students, according to a PGCPS spokesperson. Unlike school buses, the vans do not require a driver with a commercial driver’s license; using the vans will free up drivers with a commercial license for routes that require full-size buses. But of the district’s 1,034 school bus routes, Hill said, only a fraction have few enough students to be covered by passenger vans — the county has ordered a total of 16 vans.
In emails and interviews, PGCPS officials highlighted their driver recruitment efforts, including regular job fairs and paid training that includes qualification for a commercial drivers’ license. “I need a driver behind every steering wheel,” said Hill, but he acknowledged that the district is struggling to compete with other transportation jobs that offer better pay. “It all comes back to the green dollar.”
Not enough pay
Gina said she had to quit in 2022 after four years driving for PGCPS. She was struggling to make enough money to take care of herself, her partner and their new baby. As her household’s only breadwinner, she said she made between $22,000 and $28,000 a year. They relied on government assistance, which, she said, “isn’t the life I prefer to live.”
The decision to quit was a hard one. “I just loved being in the position to really implant good advice in the youth and make a difference,” Gina said. But she couldn’t afford to stay. “No matter how much you worked, the pay was still not enough to support yourself.”
PGCPS now pays new bus drivers $21.13 an hour, up from $20.32 last year. According to a living wage calculator created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the living wage in Prince George’s County for one adult with no children is $22.31. For one adult with two children, it’s $52.84.
PGCPS drivers are guaranteed 6.5 hours per day, and the regular school year includes about 185 work days. The district spreads those wages evenly across the year, accounting for any days schools are closed. That effectively shrinks drivers’ biweekly paychecks. Meanwhile, many drivers said that the nature of the job, which splits the work day between morning pickup and afternoon drop off, makes it difficult for them to supplement their income with other work.
Under their union contract, the PGCPS hourly rate increases annually, up to $41.57 for drivers with 15 or more years of experience. The contract also requires that routes be offered to the most senior drivers first, including extra routes to cover vacancies. With enough overtime, senior bus drivers can make close to six figures. Theodore Booth, who has been with PGCPS for two decades, said he’s comfortable with his salary. He suggested young drivers may not make enough if they’re not willing to pick up shifts. “The work is always there,” he said.
But James McCaffity, who has been with the district for four years, said there’s only enough work for newer drivers like him because of the driver shortage. “If we were fully staffed,” he said, “[new drivers] would never stay more than a year or two.” McCaffity, who is also a union rep, said a bump in pay of only a few dollars would help new drivers make ends meet. “A lot of people are not willing to stay here for 10 years to get there.”
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), a district comparable in size to PGCPS, pays new drivers $23.17 per hour, two dollars more than PGCPS offers. Fairfax and Arlington counties also start new drivers at over $23 per hour.
Just before school started last August, The Washington Post reported that MCPS was short 70 bus drivers, while PGCPS still needed 168.
The difference in pay may be helping MCPS attract more new drivers in particular. According to a 2022 report to the Maryland State Department of Education, the two counties had similar numbers of experienced drivers, but Montgomery had 28% more drivers with fewer than three years experience, including more than twice as many drivers who had been driving less than a year.
‘Please don’t leave’
PGCPS Communications Director Meghan Gebreselassie said in an email that the district is “committed to offering competitive pay to drivers and will seize any opportunity to do so,” but provided no specifics as to what those opportunities might be.
Parents said they felt a disconnect between the district’s optimistic language and what they’re seeing at bus stops every day. “We spend a lot of money on property taxes,” said Cynthia Totten, another Chávez parent. “Why are the bus drivers getting paid so crappily? What’s happening around how the priorities are being weighed?”
Some parents have taken it upon themselves to shore up the district’s bus drivers. Chávez PTO president Culzoni, whose daughter is a rising fourth grader, said she gives their bus drivers gift cards several times during the school year — “Just trying to say, like, ‘Please don’t leave.’”
Back in February, at the stop in West Hyattsville, Navarrete watched a school bus pull up across the street. She glanced at another woman waiting for her grandchild, both of them resisting the urge to hope. “That’s not it,” Navarrete said. Then the bus door opened and her daughter hopped out. The grownups practically applauded. The bus was only 20 minutes late.