School bus drivers sound alarm about shortage, demand pay increase

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- School bus drivers in Wake County are sounding the alarm that more drivers are needed immediately.

"(School bus drivers) form part of the backbone that makes up our public school system," said Renee Sekel, a Wake County mother of three.

Sekel, who has one child in elementary, middle, and high school, says her family has had a positive experience utilizing school busing, though she understands the widespread impact driver shortages could have.

"We cannot afford to have everybody drive their own kid to school. Logistically that's not okay for parents to have to try to do that. And economically it's not okay. Environmentally it's not okay," said Sekel.

A WCPSS spokesperson told ABC 11 they have about 100 vacancies for drivers. At the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year, they had 720 drivers; currently they have about 610 bus drivers and about 60 full-time permanent bus drivers.

Friday morning, a group of Wake County school bus drivers teamed up with Wake NCAE for a press conference, requesting state leaders pass a budget which provides greater financial support for school districts, allowing them to increase wages.

"We have some bus drivers living on food stamps. Who wants to sign up for that?" said Zachary Campbell, a Wake County School bus driver.

"I think bus drivers made it really clear that their conditions are extremely hard. They are trying to run multiple routes, more than they ever have before, clean the buses in between each group of children, make sure the kids are getting to school on time, and they're even sacrificing some of their own human and body needs in order to do that, in order to prioritize our kids," said Kristin Beller, President of Wake NCAE.

Beller believes there were staffing issues prior to the pandemic, though that's exacerbated the issue.

In Wake County, they're offering a $1,200 signing bonus for new drivers, and starting pay at $15 an hour. While district officials note they've made some headway in hiring, there's plenty of more work to do.

In Durham, the Board of Education called on Superintendent Pascal Mubenga to bring forward an hourly pay raise for DPS bus drivers starting at $17 an hour and rising to $24 an hour for a driver with 30 years of experience.

The new pay scale will be presented at the school board's regular meeting on Thursday, Sept. 23.

"It is important that our students get to school on time and it's not happening. Our buses are running consistently late. My students are often twenty minutes late to school. We are doing the best we can. But we do not have enough drivers," said Juneakcia Green, a Wake County school bus driver.

"Parents will care when parents start to notice their children coming home later and later more often. It's going to happen if we don't get more bus drivers. The students on my afternoon routes are routinely home late by at least thirty minutes," added Campbell.

The district recently brought on six drivers who received new routes this week, and said a few dozen more are in various phases of the application and training process.

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