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WINCHESTER — Low pay and a lack of access to benefits for part-time employees is driving the shortage of bus and van drivers in Winchester Public Schools, according to 17 drivers who attended the Winchester School Board work session Monday.

Board members were presented with a petition signed by 48 drivers calling for improved pay and conditions. Several who spoke before the board noted the starting salary of $14.28 per hour is less than surrounding districts. Bus drivers in Clarke County Public Schools start at $17.17 per hour. In Frederick County Public Schools, drivers start at $16.20, and both districts have higher midpoint and maximum salaries than WPS.

In Winchester, where eight of the 53 bus driver/bus aide positions are vacant, drivers need to work 14 years to earn the midpoint wage of $21. To earn the maximum wage of $33.97, they must work 28 years. The low starting wage and lack of raises frustrates driver John Lazer, hired in 2009.

“If you were applying for a job today and somebody told you in 2033 you would be getting $14.28, how many would sign up? Let’s see a show of hands. I wouldn’t raise my hand, either,” Lazer told board members, whose protocol is not to reply to questions asked during the public speaking period. “When you go to bed tonight, I’d like you to remember those numbers. Twelve years, $14.28. It’s so sad it’s almost laughable.”

Richard Hill, hired in 2015, noted Fauquier and Warren counties have higher starting salaries at $16.98 and$16.32, respectively.

“And you wonder why you can’t get drivers,” he said. “If you’re going to say you’re going to do equity, do it. But start here with our drivers.”

Van driver Sandra Mason, hired in 2011, said she loves her job, which primarily involves driving special education students. But the work can be challenging. Mason said she often begins driving when its dark out and sometimes drives as far as Luray and Strasburg to pick up students. Some students’ parents have protective orders against one another and Mason said she worries about being followed by a parent involved in a custody dispute.

Mason and fellow van driver Misha Moss said that unlike school bus drivers, van drivers and aides who help supervise children on buses aren’t eligible for a $200 attendance bonus for working during the coronavirus pandemic. It was paid through the $2.3 trillion Coronavirus Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March 2020. Moss said close proximity to students puts all drivers at risk of being infected with the virus.

“It’s only fair that we get it, too,” said Moss, who was hired in 2014. “You’re kind of separating everybody, but we do work as a team. Because when bus drivers can’t pick up their kids, we get called or volunteer to pick up their kids.”

Low pay and the stressful nature of the job has traditionally made recruiting and retaining school bus and van drivers difficult, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. A survey released on Aug. 31 of 1,500 members by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National School Transportation Association found about 75% said they’ve altered service and 51% described their shortage as “severe.”

About half said low pay was a major factor. Other factors were the lengthy time required to get a commercial driver’s license needed for driving school vehicles, and a lack of benefits and hours.

“The survey reaffirms individual feedback that we have heard from our members that both in-district and contract school bus operators are facing serious challenges with respect to staffing of the driver pools this fall,” said Curt Macsyn, NSTA executive director. “While we are vitally concerned about the short-term implications of the shortage, our organization looks forward to engaging solutions to address this vexing issue.”

To improve recruitment and retaining, WPS in 2000 designated regular bus drivers as full-time employees, making them eligible for health benefits even though they typically work about 22½ hours per week. Substitute bus drivers and car and van drivers — there are five regular car and van drivers in the division — receive a flat pay rate and aren’t eligible for benefits.

In an email, Superintendent Jason Van Heukelum noted WPS has over 300 part-time employees and bus drivers are the only ones eligible for health benefits.

“The crux of the issue is a misunderstanding of typical benefits for part-time employees and the purpose of a market-based incentive,” he said. “Our substitute drivers and van drivers are all able to move into a bus driver role at any time to receive those incentives.”

— Contact Evan Goodenow at egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

(3) comments

KerryKenney

I hope they do get raises--good raises. I am tired of taxes going to administrators instead of folks that work directly with our kids on the buses and in classrooms.

WINCBEST

Do not quite understand when you say eligible fro benefits. Does this mean it is offered to them to purchase? The can't afford to purchase with that pay. Do these drivers get paid all year like a teacher?

anon

Teachers do not get paid "all year" and do not get paid for summer. Teachers can choose to take their 10 months of contract pay over 12 months. That makes it easier for their personal budgets.

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