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Seeking bus drivers, schools compete with delivery companies for workers

"Crisis" school bus driver shortage stung schools during the academic year.

STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — School systems are offering new bonuses, raises and incentives to hire and retain school bus drivers this fall.

Twenty percent of DeKalb County's driver slots are unfilled, officials say.

By law, school systems have to provide transportation to public schools for students who need it.  But the state pays only a portion of the cost and that portion has plunged.

Tanjill Sawyer said she loves driving a school bus for DeKalb County. Her pay rate, she said politely, is her own personal business.  But she explained she has qualified for a new house built by Habitat for Humanity – the charity that builds for folks with low incomes.

"I couldn’t afford to live in the apartment I have. It's rough with, you know, my pay, to afford an apartment in Atlanta. So I went to Habitat," said Tanjill Sawyer, a bus driver for 12 years in DeKalb and the city of Atlanta. 

In Georgia, school bus drivers average pay statewide is $15.82 per hour – a base salary that’s 21% below the national average, according to research by State Affairs Georgia.

DeKalb school officials said its hourly starting rate is above $20 and increasing.  DeKalb is offering bonuses and cash incentives to fill a nagging shortage in school bus drivers, which they hope to eliminate when classes start again in August. 

School officials say DeKalb is currently about 140 drivers short, out of 800 positions.

The shortages mean school bus drivers are routinely doubling up routes – often delivering children to school after the school day starts.

"Oh yeah, every day. This morning I had to do a double elementary," Sawyer said Thursday. "Most times, I have to do a double middle school. All of us do. It's not just me," she said, adding that she's still able to get the last students delivered to school "close to on time."  She said cafeteria workers have learned to hold meals for late children dependent on school breakfasts.

School bus driver shortages are tied to a tighter job market – and competition from trucking and delivery companies that are paying drivers higher wages.  

"We’re competing with Lyft. We’re competing with Uber. We’re competing with Amazon and other jobs that allow logistics delivery for drivers," said Tekshia Smith, the human resources director for DeKalb County schools.

This month, DeKalb's board of education approved raises for drivers, teachers and school resource officers.  The board has also approved new retention and performance bonuses.

Thirty years ago, more than half the money used to pay for school buses and drivers came from the state treasury.  Since then, the state’s share has plunged to just twenty percent, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy institute.  That means each individual school system is making up the difference.

"This needs to be a much larger priority of state lawmakers. And I have yet to meet one who’s against money for school buses," said Stephen Owens of the GBPI. "We just need to recognize how bad the situation has gotten."

Owens said the shortage has turned into a funding and logistics crisis for public education.

Sawyer sees other school bus drivers who have left for higher paying jobs. She said it shouldn’t be that way.

"There’s no packages more important than the packages I transport," Sawyer said of the schoolchildren she sees each day.  "But we get paid the least."

This year, the legislature authorized 5% raises for school bus drivers. Statewide, that raise for the average school bus driver comes to less than 80 cents per hour.

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