Dontarrious Rowls knew what he was getting into when he became the director of transportation for Flagler Schools: Bus driver shortages exacerbated by COVID-19; a pay scale that can’t keep up with driver options in neighboring counties; parents understandably upset about late-arriving buses, long walks to bus stops and doubling up bus runs.
The school district currently has about 64 school bus drivers, which is about 12 to 18 drivers below optimum efficiency, Rowls said in an interview on Oct. 1.
“Right now, I have drivers being stretched thin,” he said.
As a result, buses are late and drivers are doing double runs.
Rowls said his department has had 12 to 15 resignations from the start of the school year.
“We started the year down, but we had enough to get the job done. Now it’s even more stressful,” he said.
“We started the year down, but we had enough to get the job done. Now it’s even more stressful.”
DONTARRIOUS ROWLS, Flagler Schools director of transportation
Rowls said some drivers are “terrified” to be working in confined environments because of the pandemic. Others are finding better paying jobs at Waste Pro, or transit authorities in neighboring counties or in other school districts.
The Jacksonville Transit Authority has offered $10,000 to $15,000 bonuses for drivers because of its own shortage.
Rowls said Flagler Schools pays a starting salary of $13.58 an hour for drivers with no experience and $14.67 for drivers who come in with five years’ experience.
Other school districts pay more, he said. The St. Johns County School District pays a starting salary of $16.00 an hour for drivers with no experience, $17.94 for five years’ experience and a sliding scale that goes up to $23.93 for 14 years’ experience, according to the district’s website.
“Our goal right now is to stabilize our workforce,” said Flagler Schools Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, speaking of employee shortages across the school district.
Mittelstadt said about 200 district employees make less than $15 an hour, which is scheduled to become the minimum wage in the Florida by 2026. Increasing their wages will cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, she said.
Rowls and Mittelstadt said the school district trains drivers to get their commercial driver’s license.
“We do pay training, we prepare them to get tested on equipment and we pay for testing,” Rowls said, referring to the state certified exam.
Drivers are also trained in how to manage students and de-escalate situations, he said.
The training takes three to six weeks, depending on the individual, Rowls said. Right now there are three driver candidates in training, he said, but added, “It takes 30 seconds for someone to tell me, ‘I resign,’ and to replace them we’re looking at up to six weeks.”
Commenting on a recent post in the Facebook group, Flagler Parents, many parents praised their children’s bus drivers. Others noted that bus stops can be a long walk and through traffic for some children, and buses are often late.
“A bus shows up and then tells us that there will be another bus … wait and another bus doesn’t show up,” one parent said.
Rowls said the department is inundated with parents calling in that their child’s bus is late or didn’t show. Typically, the bus is late and parents are leaving before the bus arrives, he said.
“Our goal right now is to stabilize our workforce.”
CATHY MITTELSTADT, Flagler Schools Superintendent
Rowls said there are about 75 bus routes in the district in addition to field trips and after-school programs. For those routes there are 64 active drivers and four or five part-time drivers who work as needed. Rowls said he knows transportation has to cover nine routes every day. If drivers call in sick, nine routes can easily become 12 or 15, he said.
Children are arriving home late because some parents drive their children to school before they go to work but rely on the buses to take them home, Rowls said. With full loads in the afternoons, the buses will double up as needed, sending out a short-route first with that bus, then returning to school to take the longer route.
To save time sometimes smaller routes are combined on the same bus.
“We share with parents the situation we’re facing,” he said. “We’re going to get children picked up. We can’t guarantee it’s going to be at the time on the route sheet. We just have to use all our resources and maximize them to the best of our ability to get the job done.
“If we can find funding to retain people that will stop the bleeding," he said. "But it will not fix the problem.”