Fewer NC drivers licensed to drive school buses as districts scramble to fill open positions

School Watch

(WGHP) — The scramble among the Triad’s school districts to fill hundreds of vacant drivers’ seats on their buses is a much more difficult equation than we might have calculated.

Figures provided by North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles show that, in the past five years, the number of people licensed to drive school buses has declined by 28%.

Data provided to WGHP shows that, on Oct. 31, 2017, there were 42,433 individuals with a Class A or B CDL with a P and S endorsements to a CDL license, the requirements to drive a school bus.

As of Oct. 31, 2021, that figure was 30,691.

That decline of 11,742 licensed drivers is slightly more than one for each of the roughly 10,432 public and private schools in North Carolina.

A survey last month by WGHP of 19 school districts across the region revealed more than 300 openings among the 1,850 people required to handle various bus-driving duties. The vacancy rate was more than 16%.

But that data also contradicts slightly the overall number of CDLs issued by the state, which showed new and renewing licenses in 2021 were about 38% higher than in 2018.

NC DMV has issued 89,875 CDLs this year, which also would include the correct licensing to drive in the much-needed trailer-truck trade as well as various other commercial purposes.

But if you look at only new CDLs across the board, that statewide total is down by 8.7% during the past four years – from 19,229 in 2018 to 17,565 this year – as calculated on Dec. 2.

The decline in school-bus drivers for that 4-year period is 23.8%.

Compare that rate to Thomasville City Schools’ needs to fill five of its 13 existing positions for bus drivers, a rate of 38.5%, the highest found in the Triad, or Caswell County (29.4%), Asheboro (27.3%) and Alamance/Burlington (26.8%).

NC DOT’s Marty Homan (LinkedIn)

Even school districts with lower percentages of openings need sometimes dozens of drivers to meet their needs.

Such trends could be affected by a greater need for drivers for commercial delivery vehicles – think UPS, Amazon and FedEx – DMV Communications Manager Marty Homan said. He suggested that might be the reason why there are fewer available bus drivers.

“There is competition for those delivery drivers,” Homan said. “You can make more money driving for someone else than you can driving a school bus.”

Desperate school districts have recognized that issue and are paying substantial bonuses, increasing salaries and promising additional earnings opportunities to attract potential drivers. They then have requirements that begin with the CDL license to qualify for those jobs.

Not really drivers

But Homan said there are a lot of people getting CDL licenses and the required endorsements who never will drive a school bus.

“There are a lot of school systems that make their employees get these licenses,” he said. “They go through the training of school bus drivers without ever driving the bus.”

An example of that is Montgomery County Schools. Katie C. Hursey, public information officer for that school district, wrote last month in an email to WGHP that “board policy requires most non-certified staff to be trained as drivers.”

She said it is then “up to each principal to delegate bus responsibilities while maintaining all other operations of her/his school campus.

“Our drivers are our nutrition workers, custodians, teachers’ assistants, teachers, and even administrators.”

Requirements an issue?

Jeff Johnson, transportation director at Alleghany County Schools, said in an email to WGHP that government regulation associated with the CDLs is in part responsible for the shortage of drivers. He cited background checks, physicals and other requirements.

But Homan defended the state’s requirements and the training involved in getting those permissions.

“They’re driving large vehicles with dozens of passengers aboard,” he said. “The training is important.”

More training available

Homan said the shortage “isn’t because we aren’t training people.”

The DMV, in fact, has adjusted that training, Homan said, to help accommodate the need for bus drivers while also enduring the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic by instituting virtual training.

Before the pandemic, he said, CDL training was conducted through in-person classes that required at least five people to attend before they could be scheduled, which sometimes delayed a district’s ability to add a potential driver.

“We’ve been doing virtual training since last year, and it has been a great success,” Homan said. “We’re trying to do everything we can to train a large number.

“A virtual training class can have up to about 200 participants.”

He said trainers also looked at how effective those classes were compared to in-person training. “The virtual pass rate was almost exactly the same as in-person,” he said. “About 1% difference.’

The overall point he was trying to make is that the DMV recognizes the need for bus drivers and the problems with finding them as many older people leave their seats on the buses.

“This is an example of how the division is trying to be responsive to the need,” he said, “so we’re not holding up certification.”

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