Driver shortage causing Macon County School buses to sit idle

Driver shortage causing Macon County School buses to sit idle

Keeping school buses on the road is an integral part of ensuring Macon County students receive an education. Too many times over the recent months have buses been sitting idle because of a lack of bus drivers. Benefits available to full time bus drivers include above average pay, health care, insurance, reimbursable training expenses and more. Contact Macon County Schools Transportation Director Todd Gibbs at (828)524-3314, ex. 1029.

Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer

School buses are an integral part of the Macon County School (MCS) System. There are 52 bus routes in Macon County, which cover all nine schools, seven of which are considered full-time routes.

“These [seven] routes total 30 hours or more each week,” relayed Todd Gibbs, Macon County Transportation and Ground Facilities director. “Full-time employees are eligible for retirement benefits, health care benefits, supplemental insurance benefits, and more.  All other routes are 4-5.5 hours per day. That means anywhere from 2 to 2.75 hours per morning and afternoon route, minimum pay for bus drivers is $15/hour. We have drivers who have topped out of the pay scale and only receive pay increases when the General Assembly votes percentage increases for all school employees.”

The county’s yellow buses run more than 2,500 miles per day at a cost of $1,276.315 per year. The buses get about eight miles per gallon per bus. The dollar amount may seem like a large number but buses run from Tellico, to Walnut Creek, to Mulberry, to Standing Indian. This amount pays for diesel, tires, oil, filters, seat covers, drivers’ pay and benefits, mechanics pay and benefits, and that is just for the yellow buses.

Why drive a school bus

Carolyn Fouts is one of the many school bus drivers in Macon County. 

“I got my bus license in January 1991 after driving for two years in Georgia, before coming back home,” said Fouts. “So this January will be 32 years for Macon County Schools. I’ve had a bus license for 34 years total. I am one of five EC (Exceptional Children) bus drivers that serve Macon County/Franklin area schools. EC buses have safety assistants that ride also. Josh, one on my bus students then, works on my school bus now.”

Fouts drives all over the county on her route – Clarks Chapel, Patton Area, Sylva Road, Lake Emory Road and in-town streets, and the Iotla area.

She drops off and picks up children at Franklin High, Macon Middle, Mountain View, South Macon, East Franklin and Iotla Valley. 

Her work day consists of three routes – the first is three hours, second is one hour, and the third is four hours, totaling eight hours, including pre-checks and bus cleaning.

“I enjoy driving the bus and you get attached to the children and parents,” said Fouts. “I have one to graduate this year that I’ve had since he was seven. When they graduate, you miss them. It’s always a good feeling to see former students come up and speak to you and give you a hug. Although driving a school bus and being out in public can have a twist. I had one student that didn’t know me because I wasn’t on the bus. That was funny.”

Fouts indicated that very often, traffic is bad, especially on these smaller back roads. She encounters more cars and trucks crossing into her lane than people running the bus stop sign. She said people don’t want to follow a school bus so they will pull out in front of you. 

“You have to watch for that,” she said.

Linda Williams is also a school bus driver. She speaks about her experiences driving a bus for 40 years.

“I drive both morning and afternoon. I drive bus #41 for South Macon Elementary in the Otto area. I travel to four schools. The traffic/road construction to/from South Macon and Franklin High can be very challenging.  As far as student discipline, we discuss safety and the rules for riding the bus. We have an understanding of what is expected of each other. I have a really good group of riders. They are well behaved. I’m very proud of them. We have support from our principals and assistant principals as well.  I like driving because I love kids.  Also, it’s a way of giving back to my community. I’m close to driving three generations. I have driven the same route throughout my career. A special thank you is needed for the parents for being understanding when issues arise that cause me to be early/late. They are a very important part in things going smooth.  I have been truly blessed during my years as a driver. I’ve developed lots of friendships with the kids and parents that continue to this day. I consider them my extended family.”

School bus crisis

Gibbs explained the serious nature of the bus driver shortage.

“Since COVID especially, but somewhat before that, we have been short route drivers, and especially substitute bus drivers.  It is now the norm to have at least one bus in the county not running because there is no driver for it.  Five years ago, it was extremely rare for a bus to sit because there was no driver for it.  Ideally, we would have 10 substitute drivers in a pool to use for fill-in.  But since we don’t have enough drivers for regular routes, I don’t see us having any sort of pool of substitute drivers in the near future.  Many local business are currently short employees; we are in the same situation with drivers. Bus driving is a very rewarding job. Kids in Macon County Schools are great kids.  Understandably, bus driving is also somewhat stressful. The amount of traffic a driver has to navigate a bus through requires attentiveness and caution.”

Kim Smith is the parent of two Macon County school children who have been adversely affected by the bus shortage. Smith, who works at Wal-Mart, explains. 

“When I get a phone call early in the morning that my child’s bus will not be running today, I have to scramble to make alternate plans to get them both to school. The morning is not so bad because I can drive them to school before work, but in the afternoon I don’t get off until 5 p.m., so I need to find someone who can pick them up from school. I can’t leave work early, as we are assigned points at my job, and leaving early would deduct points and would adversely affect my job performance. In my particular case our bus has been without a driver too many times this year already.”

April Keefer is the mother of four Macon County school children. Each child is in a different school this year. One is in elementary, one in MVI, one at MMS and one at FHS. 

“It is difficult to get each child to school on time with so many drop-offs and long car rider lines,” said Keefer. “Often at least one child goes in late if not two. In the afternoon I pick up my elementary school child first and the two at MVI and MMS have to wait at school until I can get there. My child in high school also has to wait later to get home. The bus has been non-operative several times this year sometimes for a few days in a row or only in the morning and not in the afternoon. It is very inconvenient to have to drive all over town dropping off and picking up my children. There have been several substitute drivers this year but not all days were covered.”

How to become a school bus driver

Training is dictated by the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration, and the state Department of Transportation, not Macon County Schools.

Three days of classroom training covers everything from air brakes on a bus to passenger stops, to mechanical pre-trip inspections, and more. During this classroom training, a drug screen is administered.

Trainees, if they are not school system employees, must fill out an application for MCS. This is the only MCS requirement, besides them being approved for employment by the board of education.

After the three days of classroom training, the trainee must go to the NCDMV-Drivers License office to obtain a CDL-Permit. This permit must be in their possession a minimum of 14 days before they can do behind-the-wheel training.

During this 14-day minimum wait, potential bus drivers must also get a CDL physical from one of the five certified health care providers in Franklin that do CDL/DOT physicals.

After obtaining CDL permit, the drug screen, the CDL/DOT physical, and the 14-day minimum wait, they are then eligible for three days of behind-the-wheel training.

In this three days, the trainee practices handling a bus, passenger stops, pre-trip inspections, and more.

After completing the behind-the-wheel training, the trainee must go back to the NCDMV-Drivers License office to get their permanent CDL license.

All of the expenses, CDL Permit, DOT Physical, drug screen, and permanent CDL license are all reimbursable expenses by the school system with the MCS reimbursement form and receipts.

If you are interested in driving a school bus for Macon County, contact Todd Gibbs at  (828)524-3314, ext 1029.