School Bus

Unused Frederick County Public Schools buses fill a lot along Thomas Johnson Drive near the system’s transportation center Friday afternoon. FCPS, like school districts across the country, is struggling to find enough drivers to cover the county’s routes.

Karren Sowell stood at the podium Monday, looking out at a boardroom packed with Frederick County Public Schools staff, officials and community members.

She opened her journal.

“First day of school,” she read aloud from an Aug. 18 entry. “So excited to see a full bus of students.”

Sowell has been with the district’s transportation department since 2015. She started as a substitute bus driver, then moved on to a benefited driving position. Earlier this year, she switched to a surveying job, planning and maintaining bus routes and keeping data on stops.

Two weeks after that initial journal entry, Sowell wrote:

“Just finished another 60-plus hour work week. Not sure how I will get everything done. Feeling defeated.”

And a while after that:

“Today, I laid in bed, thinking, ‘I don’t want to go to work.’ I love my job, but I don’t know how much more I can do.”

Like systems across the country, FCPS is dealing with a staggering shortage of bus drivers. The district’s chief operating officer, Paul Lebo, said he’s down 40 people, leaving staff who already work full-time jobs in the system — like Sowell — to pick up the slack by rising early to drive a morning bus and staying late to drive an evening one.

And in many cases, even those measures are falling short. Nearly every day, parents across the county are being told their children’s bus has been canceled altogether. Often, that notification comes with less than an hour left in the school day, forcing families to scramble to arrange other transportation.

For Sowell, the shortage has meant her days are filled with phone calls from frustrated school administrators, distraught drivers and “irate” parents. Her family eats hot dogs or sandwiches for dinner, she told the Board of Education at Monday’s emergency meeting, and they’re starting to expect she’ll be too tired to show up for events like her nephew’s upcoming band concert.

Currently, out of about 360 routes across the county, FCPS has 25 with no driver assigned to them, Lebo said. They’re also short 15 “utility drivers,” who — akin to a resident substitute teacher — are full-time workers on hand to fill in wherever they’re needed.

Thirteen employees are out on long-term leave, Lebo added, seven to 10 more call out sick on an average day, and five to seven are typically out on pre-approved leave. So mechanics, office managers, dispatchers — even Lebo himself — take to the roads, driving a bus in an attempt to make ends meet.

The department is stretched too thin, Lebo said.

“Because all of the spare drivers are covering routes that are empty, there isn’t anybody to assist when somebody’s sick or somebody has to be out on leave,” Lebo said. “And that’s the daily patchwork.”

Kids can be picked up by a different driver every day, Sowell said at Monday’s meeting. That can exacerbate behavioral problems — different drivers have different rules, and they struggle to discipline students whose names they don’t even know.

Plus, kids this year are often late to school and even later getting home as drivers add routes to their schedule. Teachers are having to stay past their contracted work day to supervise students whose buses are late, said Frederick County Teachers’ Association President Missy Dirks. She’s advocating teachers get paid for that extra time.

Cassie Fitzpatrick, the mother of two elementary schoolers in the county, said she’d been given 45 minutes’ notice last week that her kids’ afternoon bus was canceled.

“I’m very fortunate in that I have a job that’s somewhat flexible,” she said. “But there’s no consistency whatsoever.”

Sometimes, Fitzpatrick said, her kids are sat four-to-a-seat as drivers double up on routes. The daily scramble also forces some drivers to complete certain routes backward, meaning kids must cross busy roads to get home.

“It’s a constant losing battle,” Fitzpatrick said. “People are trying to be patient and be accommodating — and I understand that — but there’s a huge disconnect.”

FCPS laid off hundreds of bus drivers and food and nutrition workers in August 2020, saying there wasn’t work for them during the year of virtual instruction. When that happened, longtime board member Brad Young told the News-Post the laid-off workers would be able to get rehired quickly when operations returned to normal.

But despite a recent pay bump from $18.33 per hour to $20.60 and an “all-hands-on-deck” advertising campaign, the district’s transportation department just isn’t getting the applicants it needs, Lebo said. The factors driving the problem are hard to pin down, he added.

Prospective bus drivers have to complete rigorous training and testing to secure the job. Most don’t have a commercial drivers’ license, and with the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association still operating on a limited schedule, obtaining one can take weeks.

Applicants also have to pay the fee for their own fingerprinting, which totals about $48.

During Monday’s emergency session, where board members heard from overworked teachers, instructional assistants and food service workers, as well as drivers, several speakers pitched possible outside-the-box solutions to the busing struggle.

One idea was mobilizing the National Guard. Massachusetts activated 250 members this fall in response to the driver shortage, and New York and Ohio considered taking the same step.

Community members also floated asking for help from first responders or law enforcement officials who have CDLs, organizing a central platform for parents to coordinate carpool groups, providing stipends to parents as an incentive to drive their children to school or use ridesharing apps and using passenger vans from churches or other local organizations.

At the Board of Education’s next meeting on Monday, Lebo said he’d be prepared to present logistical information on some of those proposals.

But in the meantime, the shortage will continue to wear on exhausted staff and frustrated parents.

“Our drivers are overwhelmed,” Sowell said. “And if we don’t start taking care of them, they’re going to have to move on to start taking care of themselves and their families.”

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek

(22) comments

Plumbum

If u think it’s hard now to find people with a cdl, the FMCSA is changing the cdl licensing requirements effective 2022, gonna be even harder

HappySeller2014

Doesn't the county have millions and millions and millions of $s in surplus this year???

Obviously enough to give every homeowner under the median property value a $175 check, and then have millions and millions and millions of $s STILL left in surplus???

And the county wants to buy up local buildings with all thus surplus??? And not help with 20 positions and 15 substitute drivers...on drivers payscale??? And run the other 80% of bus drivers into the ground?

You can always find qualified bus drivers. You just have to pay them a respectable wage. I can get a job at Taco Bell on Thurmont at entry level at $15 an hour...why would I want to drive around a bunch of kids in a big bus during crazy hours for only $20 an hour? Both jobs offer benefits...and Taco Bell FREE food to employees all day long!

What a comical, ignorant, wateful, incompetent bunch of knuckleheads we have running FCPS and the County Executive's Office.

Complete idiots. And yet our local taxes just keep on going up.

LeonardKeepers

since when does a school bus drive need a CDL license, last i knew they only needed a class B license to drive a school bus. dimwit joe is paying people not to work. i do have to agree the bus driver has a great responsibility for the students.at times i have access to a radio where i can hear the bus drivers and dispatch asking for drivers if they can do another drivers route and how late they will complete their run.if people would get vaccinated it might help to alleviate the problem.it is flat out stupid of people who refuse to get vaccinated.

Plumbum

Inaccurate

shiftless88

Gee, Leonard, I don't recall you whining when the previous administration was paying people not to work. Did I miss that?

Plumbum

Just like all private employers and corporations the school board and governments must cough up the money. The school board is competing for drivers just like anyone else. Pay up!

C.D.Reid

Do have a CDL for driving your landscaping truck? If you do, maybe you could help with driving the children around while your migrant laborers are working. Just a suggestion.....

sevenstones1000

Property taxes.

ValerieDale

Here is what Howard County and Howard County Public Schools are doing to recruit and retain staff : https://www.wbaltv.com/article/howard-county-incentives-for-school-bus-drivers/38296242#

DickD

You might start by paying the $48. Not much, but to someone earning $20.67/hr. a bill not needed. How about a sign on fee? Many companies are giving that.

ValerieDale

[thumbup]

laurie_mactaggart

[thumbup]

Plumbum

“We can’t find any teachers and drivers so let’s d~ck around with the summer schedule and drive even more away”

bpsws

Driving a school bus is likely the worst job in the school system with the greatest responsibility for students' safety. Think of yourself driving the family vehicle with two or three children in the back seats. You look at them often to check what they are doing. A bus driver has 20 or more students in the bus seats and can't really see those in the back very well. The trouble makers always choose the back seats for this reason. When a driver does refer a student for misbehaving or putting other students in danger because of his/her actions, the student will deny it, parents will believe their child, and too often, nothing happens. Thankfully, cameras on buses will deter some of the behavior, but the last time I checked, not all buses have cameras. Pay the drivers more.

C.D.Reid

Agreed, 100%. This is one job i wouldn't have the patience for, or would want the liability of.

Paul Sobus

When I drove a Frederick County School bus I developed selective hearing @ eyesight!

AOC

Administration not Association. Come on FNP GET SOME REAL REPORTERS.

Most don’t have a commercial drivers’ license, and with the Maryland Motor Vehicle Association still operating on a limited schedule, obtaining one can take weeks.

C.D.Reid

Good eye, AOC. I'm guessing the FNP is suffering from a lack of skilled writers just like the county is suffering from a lack of qualified drivers. Another by product of our gift from China.

AOC

[thumbup]

Greg F

AOC…just go away.

Jim Hartley

I find the reporting excellent, thank you.

phydeaux994

👍

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it clean. No vulgar, racist, sexist or sexually-oriented language.
Engage ideas. This forum is for the exchange of ideas, not personal attacks or ad hominem criticisms.
TURN OFF CAPS LOCK.
Be civil. Don't threaten. Don't lie. Don't bait. Don't degrade others.
No trolling. Stay on topic.
No spamming. This is not the place to sell miracle cures.
No deceptive names. Apparently misleading usernames are not allowed.
Say it once. No repetitive posts, please.
Help us. Use the 'Report' link for abusive posts.

Thank you for reading!

Already a member?

Login Now
Click Here!

Currently a News-Post subscriber?

Activate your membership at no additional charge.
Click Here!

Need more information?

Learn about the benefits of membership.
Click Here!

Ready to join?

Choose the membership plan that fits your needs.
Click Here!