August 14, 2002
Since 1998, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has struggled to employ an adequate number of qualified school-bus drivers. Each year, the number of people applying for the job is lower than the year before, and the county is beginning to suffer the repercussions of the shortage.
"Fairfax County was short 100 drivers during the 2001-02 school year," said Tim Parker, assistant director of transportation services for FCPS.
The ideal number of public-school bus drivers for the county is 1,100, but the FCPS Office of Transportation Services has not employed this many drivers in years. During the 2001-02 school year, approximately 1,000 drivers were employed.
"Employment in this area is too good; the pool from which we usually draw our drivers is very low," said Parker about the lack of interest. He added that most people are turned off by the idea of being a bus driver and aren't aware of the benefits or rewarding aspects of the job.
THE SHORTAGE has affected several aspects of the school system. Drivers have to forfeit personal leave due to the lack of substitute drivers available and sometimes must cover extra bus runs in addition to those they already cover. FCPS Office of Transportation Services supervisors often take positions as substitute drivers if the need arises. Students spend longer periods of time on the bus if runs are rerouted to accommodate the number of available drivers. In addition, after-school activities, in particular sports teams and field trips, often hire charter-bus services if public-school buses are not available.
Richard Evans, an FCPS school bus driver for four years, said that some school-system employees have taken matters into their own hands. "The band director at Falls Church High School went through the bus driver training and now drives buses after school," Evans said.
Kim Green drove school buses for FCPS for five years before moving to Florida and has returned to renew her commercial driver's license (CDL) and drive for the county again. "Fairfax County has the strongest training program in the country," she said.
The county's bus-driver training program meets for two weeks from 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Those who attend the bus-driver training course are taught the same material that the Fairfax County Police Department teaches during its training and in addition are required to pass four tests at the Department of Motor Vehicles to receive a CDL. Trainees also must receive behind-the-wheel instruction to become comfortable driving a vehicle as large as a school bus.
"Fairfax County's training program is intensive, and the key is that they teach defensive driving. Hardly any training programs teach drivers to be defensive drivers. Bus drivers are some of the most closely scrutinized people on the road, and we have to be alert and aware of our surroundings at all times. We receive the same driver training as the police on our roads. That's a very important thing," said Evans.
THE COUNTY IS SELECTIVE about whom it hires to drive the area's children to and from school, and the concept of driving such a large vehicle can be intimidating.
There are benefits to the job: flexible hours, health care, retirement and paid holidays.
The minimum time required to be a full-time driver is 20 hours a week; however, most drivers request closer to 40. Drivers are allowed to take their children or grandchildren on the bus with them, have a window of free time between morning and afternoon runs, and are given the option of placing their children in schools their bus serves.
In addition, the Office of Transportation Services has implemented a signing bonus for those who pass the training and decide to become a bus driver, as well as a bonus for those drivers who recruit others to become drivers. Drivers start at $12.40 per hour. The training courses are paid for by the county.
So what can be done to increase the number of employees hired for the upcoming school year? "Keep an open mind, and don't be put off by the thought of being 'only a bus driver,'" said Christine Gudikunst, an FCPS school bus driver for five years. "You meet a lot of great kids and see them grow over the years. It makes you proud to be an important part of their life."
When asked the same question, Evans replied, "I spent 24 years in the printing business. It was a rat race. I now drive 45 hours a week and am always willing to take more hours. Just being out on your own, meeting great kids and having time to yourself is a wonderful thing."