Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

North Carolina legislation provided districts across the state with funds to provide one-time, merit-based bonuses to state employees. It is now up to Macon County leaders to decide how to spend that $59,000, which employees and what qualities will be considered in allocating the bonuses.

Macon County Schools currently has 204 classified employees, which are the group of employees eligible for the state merit-based bonus. Classified employees are non-teaching positions — ones that don’t require a teaching credential, bus drivers, custodians, clerical staff, any position in the district not considered as a teaching position.

The only two requirements handed down from the state is that to be eligible for the merit-based bonus, employees must be classified employees and paid out of state dollars. In Macon County, out of the 204 classified employees, only 100 are paid out of state dollars. The 104 employees that are paid from local or federal funds, are exempt from the state bonus.

“I am grateful that the state has allocated some additional funding to provide a one-time bonus for our classified, non-teaching personnel,” said Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin. “Many of these employees have worked their entire career and never received anything other than a cost of living increase or a one-time bonus.  Our custodians, bus drivers, clerical staff, cafeteria workers, bus garage, and maintenance workers provide essential services to our school system. Without these folks we simply could not have school. They are very deserving of this extra pay.”

The Macon County Board of Education is now tasked with developing the criteria to be used to evaluate the 100 eligible employees in the district. Because the bonuses involve personnel performance, the criteria is not public record, but the employees who receive it will be once the decision is finalized.

The school board has until December to submit a proposal to the state as to which employees will be considered for the bonus. While the criteria will be set by December, the district has until the end of the school year to award the bonuses.

Bus drivers are among the classified employees who can receive the one-time bonuses, something that might help in the recruitment of desperately needed drivers. Last week, Dr. Baldwin found himself driving a school bus for Macon Middle School to fill a gap in bus drivers.

Schools across Macon County are having to leave school buses parked and make arrangements to get students to and from school due to a lack of school bus drivers.

Macon Middle School Principal Scot Maslin pleaded with the school board during a recent meeting to address the issue as soon as possible before the problem gets so severe that students can’t make it to school.

Macon County Schools currently employees 52 bus drivers.

“Some drive split routes, either morning or afternoon.” said Dr. Baldwin. “We have these routes covered.  However, on several occasions over the past few years we have not had a substitute driver available and the bus has sat at the school rather than run the route.”

Bus drivers don’t typically make a significant amount, which is why the position has historically been a source of supplemental income for school employees. Due to recent changes in overtime rules for teachers and school staff, employees cannot get overtime, which is how they were able to drive buses in the past. With the change, Macon County and school districts across the state have started to experience a shortfall in drivers.

Macon County’s geography and rural demographic once again complicates the issue. Training for bus drivers occurs over several days and is rarely held in Macon County or even Western North Carolina, sometimes only once a year, making it difficult for drivers to receive training to drive a bus.

“Our plan is to continue to advertise for substitute bus drivers and to provide opportunities for folks to earn a bus driver’s license,” said Dr. Baldwin. “Additionally, we will continue to look for ways to incentivize substitute bus drivers.”