Central Virginia school divisions trying to make progress in vacancy rates of bus drivers

Charlottesville City Schools’ vacancy rate went from to 30% to 57% from 2019 to 2023.
Published: Apr. 25, 2023 at 5:23 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - School divisions are finding creative ways to stay ahead of the bus driver shortage, but some of those solutions make it more difficult to analyze what vacancy rates actually look like in Virginia.

For example, this is the first school year that vans have been used to transport students to and from school in Albemarle County. The county also uses smaller buses to consolidate routes. These solutions have helped with many of the problems the driver shortage creates, but they don’t actually add to the number of drivers in the division.

Solutions like this are making the total number of bus drivers needed seem lower, but in reality, Charlottesville and Albemarle County are still desperate for drivers.

“It’s never impacted operations the way it has for the past two school years,” said Dan Redding with ACPS. “It really helped us consolidate some bus routes so that we have fewer double backs, fewer late arrivals.”

Redding says the vacancy rate in the county is slightly lower right now than what he has been seeing the past few years, but it still needs at least 20 more drivers to be considered “fully staffed.”

“[Being fully staffed] would cover every single route and would allow us to have people like our lead drivers really go back to being in that leadership role and mentoring new drivers riding along with them,” Redding said.

The school districts are operating at a “new normal” to hide the pain of the shortage, and make what they have work. Though the Virginia Education Association says some of these changes make it difficult to analyze the actual progress of the vacancy rates, and the shortage overall.

“Even though we’ve seen vacancy rates improve slightly over the past year, that really masks the data, because statewide, we have 1,000 less bus driver positions than we did last year,” Virginia Education Association analyst Chad Stewart said.

Charlottesville City Schools’ vacancy rate went from to 30% to 57% from 2019 to 2023, according to date from the city’s Pupil Transportation. That data is when the division had spots for 30 drivers total, with 17 spots filed this year.

This school year, CCS introduced the idea of “walking school buses,” and changed routes so more students would districted to walk to school, rather than ride the bus. CCS is reducing its funding for school bus drivers starting July 1, shifting its total driver positions from 30 to 20.

“It’s not always a choice when divisions are losing these positions. It’s just a reality if they can’t find people to work in these positions, and so they kind of put on additional routes and responsibilities for bus drivers, and then eventually in future budgets they just say we can live without,” Stewart said.

Stewart says VEA sees the worst vacancy rates in the Tidewater-Hampton Roads area.

“We see in school divisions with the highest share of students living in poverty, they can see rates that are nearly four times those of school divisions with the lowest share of students living in poverty,” Stewart said.

Charlottesville and Albemarle County are paying $21 an 21.50 an hour, respectively. This pay is an effort to try and work against the vacancy rates.

“We’ve seen especially in the Valley region, vacancy rates range between 0% to 25%, so there’s a big range. Charlottesville and Albemarle are right at the regional average,” Stewart said.

The driver shortage impacts the entire Commonwealth and country, and districts are just trying to find new ways to keep up.

“We’ve heard from bus drivers that were considering retiring that they plan to stay because the increase is really that solid, and that’s supportive of their ongoing work. They feel very valued,” Redding said.

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