Yesterday was the first day of school for students in the Wilson County School system and Transportation Director Jerry Partlow said much work has gone into shoring up school bus routes and getting drivers in place for the big day.
According to system officials, preliminary enrollment numbers indicate 500 new students added to the roster and this brings total student enrollment to well over 18,000, according to schools spokesperson Jennifer Johnson. Solid numbers were scheduled to be released sometime Tuesday and can soon be found on The Wilson Post's website.
If no driver called in sick Tuesday, 130 drivers were scheduled to cover 215 routes, said Partlow. Some of those routes will be double routes. Already Partlow knows he will be down two drivers starting next week because two specialty routes don't start until next week. Partlow has two full time substitute drivers he can call on, and last resort some office staff are trained to drive the buses. Technically, explained Partlow, it's good to have 10 percent more drivers on call than the daily number used. So, even at this point he said another 13 are needed to be at full staff. There's a perpetual push to recruit school bus drivers. It's a tough job with challenging pay for the part-time, split shift job.
Efforts to lure school bus drivers
Last school year there was much talk of a bus driver shortage in Wilson County and a task force was formed to address this serious issue. Partlow said that task force was made up of Mt. Juliet, Lebanon and Watertown "stakeholders," such as current and former bus drivers.
"They got together to go over ideas to attract additional drivers," he said. "Obviously, pay was addressed."
Currently, the average pay is $13.38 an hour. The task force looked at this and their recommendation is to raise that to $15.38 per hour for the part time job. This equates to about $700,000 a year additional budget commitment. A plan has been submitted to the Wilson County Commission and Partlow said because to fund the raise would require a property tax increase, the proposal is "under consideration" at the County Commission level.
Partlow said as we speak there are several "bus drivers in training."
"If we get really lucky, and they pass all the tests they can be on the road next week," Partlow said. "There are a lot of 'ifs'".
Many parents have called to ask for additional service from the bus drivers. Some children are new and in order to pick them up, drivers may have to go some extra miles. Partlow then has to inform existing parents their child's pickup time will change.
"There's just going to have to be adjustments the first few weeks to get it all shaken out," said Partlow.
New app to track discipline reports
Another issue addressed by the task force was a better way to "track" discipline forms turned in by bus drivers. Some of the bus drivers complained of being shown disrespect at times. Previously, the way to report discipline problems on the bus was not streamlined and there were no backup copies. Because of the task force, this year drivers have access to a special app developed by the system's technology department. Bus drivers can send discipline reports to school officials directly. These will be much easier to track.
"Before it was not a good procedure," Partlow said. "The app has much more control over things."
He said this should ease the minds of bus drivers the system wants to attract.
The new Springdale Elementary School inaugural year won't increase bus routes as there are the same amount of students; they have been rezoned from Rutland and Stoner Creek elementary schools to Springdale, said Partlow.
And while Partlow knows no doubt the first few days of school will be full of glitches, he said there are glitches everyday, "somewhere over something."
There's a place on the schools website at wcschools.com called Let's Talk where parents can post.
"It's blowing up with parents asking questions about what bus their children will ride," said Partlow. "We try to address the questions as they come up."
Refer a bus driver
Another prong to recruitment of bus drivers to Wilson County is the implementation of a program whereby if someone refers a bus driver, they could be eligible for a $500 referral fee. There are a couple of caveats. Obviously, the referral needs to be hired. Then, if they work out the first 90 days, the "finder fee" will be $250. The second half would be paid of that driver stays until the end of the year. Also, there are some routes that are longer than the 30 hours and considered full time. Those drivers are then eligible for benefits.
"It's such an important job," Partlow said. "It's a lot of responsibility. Drivers are subjected to a pre-employment drug test, and subsequent random checks. They are vetted in other aspects as well.
Partlow urges everyone to be patient "with us."
"We will iron out all the kinks," he said. "We just want everyone to be safe. Traffic was calm prior to school, now it will be chaos."