Some students in the Appoquinimink School District have waited up to an hour for their school buses to arrive or take them home this school year. The delays have been persistent since September, but students in the district may not be the only ones experiencing these inconveniences.

“What we’re facing right now is a national issue,” said Appoquinimink School District Superintendent Matthew Burrows. “What we’ve experienced since the beginning of the school year is a driver shortage with [Advanced Student Transportation] which has the majority of our bus routes. And so, with that driver shortage we have late buses.”

Several school bus contractors provide transportation to students in Appoquinimink including McCain and Advanced Student Transportation –the two biggest contractors responsible for dozens of school routes in the district.

According to Burrows, the school bus companies have placed ads to hire drivers in order to meet their contractual requirements and fill their scheduled routes. The need to get the word out has been so great that even the district has taken out helping to recruit drivers for the companies by sending messages to parents, posting information on Facebook, and setting up a webpage in the district’s website.

An improving economy has a lot to do with not being able to find more people interested in driving buses for a living, Burrows said. Drivers with CDLs may be more attracted to driving a truck for more pay than the $15 an hour part-time job of driving a bus full of kids.

(SUBHED) Discipline on buses

Theresa Whisman said she drove a school bus in the district for 28 years until she got tired of it last year. She said many people are able to make a living driving a bus part-time, but that the headaches that come with it are not worth it for many, including her.

“It’s really not about the pay, but about the lack of support bus drivers get from school administrators when they complain about the behavior of students in the bus,” Whisman said. “We can write up the students that misbehave, but when you tell a school principal about it they don’t do anything.”

Whisman said that she heard of many bus drivers who had asked to not work on routes in Appoquinimink because of the lack of discipline from students.

“It’s a nightmare. One time, students tore up the seats of the bus and almost trashed it,” Whisman said. “The school bus drivers just don’t get the respect that staff inside the school buildings get.”

However, Burrows, who said that he once drove a school bus for three years, said that there is a code of conduct that students in the district are told to follow and that the district takes very seriously incidents reported by bus drivers.

“We enforce that code of conduct and there is an expectation of how you behave. Maybe you don’t see the actions of administrators because as a bus driver you may think the action would be to get the student off the bus and that would be the ultimate thing, but there are other consequences to the behaviors that happen in the bus which they may not see,” Burrows said. “But there is a standard that we expect our students to maintain. I’ll be the first to say that bus driving is a difficult position.”

(SUBHED) The role of the state

Aside from the driver shortage and the discipline issues that may discourage some school drivers from staying on the job, there are also other problems at the state level that have contributed with student transportation problems.

Burrows said that the state handles the contracts with school bus companies and it also follows a formula for how much it pays them. The school districts have little or no influence over the process.

Burrows said he’s heard reports from school bus company owners who say the state is not paying enough for their services. The pay issue was aggravated last year when fuel prices dropped and the state lowered contractors’ reimbursements.

“The contractors are identifying a $20 million to $24 million gap in funding in their words,” said Appoquinimink School District Public Information Officer Lilian Miles.

Miles said that the new state budget will include a three percent raise in pay for contractors who provide student transportation, but that the money won’t be there until the budget is passed.

Furthermore, the three percent raise is not really a “raise” per se, as it will only restore some of the money that the state took away from contractors when fuel prices went down.

“What contractors really want is a 20 percent raise to make a difference,” Burrows said. “But we don’t know that as a fact. That’s just what the contractors are saying to us [about what would be required] to make it profitable.”

Appoquinimink School District Executive Director of Operations Bob Hershey who oversees student transportation said that contractors are asking for their fair share.

“If contractors can’t make money providing this service, then the service isn’t going to be provided,” Hershey said. “They want to make a profit.”

Burrows said that the school district will continue to work with legislators to help solve some of the problems related to school bus contracts and pay.

There also other fixes that Appoquinimink has applied to address the problem including working with DelDOT to expedite the CDL process for prospect drivers; optimizing bus routing; establishing a committee of parents, board members and administrators to address issues; meeting regularly with bus contractors and more.

When asked if parents should expect school bus delays for next school year, Burrows said that he is optimistic that the district can resolve some of the issues, but not all.

“We’re going to work hard and deal with different people to resolve this, but without some changes in the state’s formula we’re going to continue facing some problems,” Burrows said.