Lakisha Ayers-White likes to interact with her students on the Shark Bus.
They know her as Mrs. K., (short for Mrs. Kisha). Ayers-White has been driving a Flagler County school bus for 10 years. She is No. 11 out of 56 drivers on the seniority list.
Ayers-White loves her route that goes to Indian Trails Middle School, Matanzas High School and Belle Terre Elementary School.
While school districts nationwide, including Flagler and Volusia, are having trouble retaining bus drivers and attendants, many veteran drivers like Ayers-White enjoy their work.
“I get to see the kids grow. There’s nothing more exciting to me.”
— LAKISHA AYRES-WHITE, Flagler County school bus driver
“I get to see the kids grow, she said. “There’s nothing more exciting to me. I went to Publix the other day and this cashier rang me up, and he was like, ‘Are you Mrs. K.?’ When I go to MediQuick I see a parent who still tells me about her kids, how they’re doing in college. It’s just the effect that you have on the kids’ lives and the relationship with the parents.”
Not all drivers and attendants have the same experience. In a letter to the Observer, a former attendant in Volusia County said some students used abusive language, threw objects and fought on his bus.
The shortage of bus drivers is usually blamed on pay. Flagler Schools Transportation Director Dontarrious Rowls said he doesn’t question employees on their reasons for leaving.
“Sometimes the situations just change,” he said. “They want to do different things. They find better opportunities. The dynamics are just different.”
SHORTAGES IN FLAGLER, VOLUSIA
In June, Rowls told the School Board that the transportation department was fully staffed after battling with shortages last year. But since the summer, the district has lost drivers and is currently 10 drivers short, Rowls said.
Volusia County Schools currently has 164 drivers. Transportation Director Rodney Smith said the district is short 19 drivers and 24 attendants.
“The shortage has created increased student loads, especially at the high school levels,” Smith said. “We also deal with coverage issues that result from absenteeism.”
Rowls said the Flagler district has had to cover 10 routes a day on average. That equates to 1,378 students that do not have a bus driver, he said. Some days, the district has to cover as many as 14 routes, he added.
While Volusia County has a pool of 14 substitute drivers, Flagler County currently has one substitute, Rowls said.
That means it’s all hands on deck. Everyone with a commercial driver's license, including supervisors, routers and dispatchers, have stepped in. Even Rowls has gotten behind the wheel. Ayers-White said she had never seen a transportation director take a route before.
“We get no graces,” Rowls said. “Those 10 routes we can’t cover, there's no, ‘Hey, don't worry about it. We'll pick our kid up today and then we can try again tomorrow.’ We are still obligated and responsible for getting all of the kids in the county home, whether we are fully staffed or whether we're not.”
That meana some drivers doubling up routes or office staffers filling in.
“It’s a ripple effect,” Rowls. “So, we do have a lot of parents saying, ‘Oh I called transportation, and nobody answered the phone.’ That's because those people are out there trying to figure out how to get their kids home.”
RAISES IN FLAGLER COUNTY
“We get no graces. Those 10 routes we can’t cover, there's no, ‘Hey, don't worry about it. We'll pick our kid up today and then we can try again tomorrow.’ We are still obligated and responsible for getting all of the kids in the county home, whether we are fully staffed or whether we're not.”
— DONTARRIOUS ROWLS, Flagler School transportation director
Salaries for drivers in Flagler are about to be raised for the second time in less than a year. On Oct. 1, beginner drivers will receive $17.50 an hour. Rowls said new hires with experience will receive as many as five annual salary steps higher than a beginner driver, which is $18.59 an hour.
The starting salary for Flagler County drivers is now higher than neighboring districts, Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt recently told the School Board.
The beginning salary in Volusia County for a driver or attendant is $15, Smith said.
Flagler has scheduled an operations and support staff job fair from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sept. 24 at the district offices in the Government Services Building, 1769 E. Moody Blvd. The district has job openings for bus drivers, driver aides, paraprofessionals, cafeteria staff, custodians and maintenance specialists. Flagler provides a 4-to-6-week training program that includes CDL certification.
“We want to hire anybody that wants to work and is willing to go through the training course and get certified to transport children,” Rowls said. “For me, it doesn't matter if you come in as a sub and you only work three days a week or if you come in full-time and work five days a week. With the position that we're in now, any help will suffice.”
Volusia County will hold a job fair on Oct. 19 at the Daytona Transportation Terminal, Smith said. The transportation department previously had three job fairs in July and two in August.
Ayers-White recently started posting videos from the Shark Bus on the “Flagler Schools Parents” Facebook page.
“I love that page because you get to hear the concerns parents have. And as employees, we get to tell our side of the story,” she said. “Like parents weren’t aware that the buses have three seat belts to a seat.”
At the beginning of the school year she had to put three students together in some seats, even on high school routes, Ayers-White said.
“Everything that we can do in our power I think we're doing,” Rowls said. “In the event of not having enough drivers, it’s always going to be critical.”