Driving a school bus is in Karen Yeager’s blood – she recalled her daddy teaching her how to drive on a stick-shift Volkswagen Beetle when she was 11 years old. Her mother drove a bus for 21 years in Kanawha County and, in 1974, Yeager tagged along with her to learn the ropes.
“I rode with her for two days and I studied the manual you had back then,” she said. ”On the third day, I got in the driver’s seat and we had to go up to Quincy to pick up a state trooper for my test.”
Today, Yeager, now in her 50th year driving, is one of nine retired school bus drivers who still work for Kanawha County Schools as substitutes. Despite her status — she originally just wanted to work two days a week — Yeager said she runs routes for four schools in the morning and the evening, in order to keep up.
“I try my best to be on time. I believe if you’re not early, you’re late,” she said. “I always tell my parents when I pick up — do you want a job? Because we’re hiring.”
School bus driver shortages are nothing new in the state. Kanawha County alone has had a shortage for at least a decade. Earlier this year, state lawmakers proposed a fix: they passed a bill lifting a 140-day cap for retired bus drivers. Now, these drivers can work an unlimited number of days without it affecting their pension benefits.
“This legislation is a great deal of relief for us,” said Brette Fraley, transportation director for Kanawha County.
At the time, policymakers estimated about 120 retired drivers — like Yeager — could qualify under the new law.
In contacting a dozen counties across the state — including the three largest by enrollments — Mountain State Spotlight found that bus drivers are stretched thin but most routes are being covered. But almost all said they have struggled to get enough substitute drivers to fill in when a regular bus driver is absent.
A lack of substitutes means if a driver calls off, another driver may have to make two runs to cover, making students late for pickup or drop off. Extracurricular activities are also taking a hit: a few counties said it’s hard to find operators to take the football team to the game, or students on a field trip to the Clay Center.
A common reason for the shortage is drivers getting their commercial driver’s license through the schools, then taking more lucrative jobs in shipping or mining.
Joe White, executive director of the organization that represents bus drivers, aides, cooks and other staff that keep public schools running, said school buses are rolling, but can come to a stop due to a few callouts.
“It’s like that throughout the state, whether it’s in the Eastern Panhandle or down in the coal fields or in the central part of the state,” he said. “I don’t know what the impact is in the state, but I can tell you, it’s running very thin.”
Where drivers are going
While Kanawha County has retired drivers like Yeager who are still working and might work beyond 140 days, officials in other counties said they had none or few retired drivers who will use the law.
Ron Stephens, superintendent of Berkeley County Schools — the school district with the second highest enrollment in West Virginia — said he’s currently got 15 or 16 substitute bus drivers in the pipeline, but none of them are retired.
No bus routes are vacant, but like many counties in the state, Berkeley is running thin on drivers.
“Out of 300 or so runs we have in this county, we don’t have any vacant routes – but someone is bound to be absent or someone is bound to get sick,” Stephens said. “So we double up.”
Unlike teachers, who typically hop the border to Maryland or Virginia because it’s hard to afford a D.C. suburb’s cost of living on a West Virginian wage, Stephens said his county’s shortage is due to competition from shipping companies on I-81 or the Procter & Gamble plant.
“They go to that opportunity when they get trained by us,” he said.
Down in Raleigh County, transportation director Greg Betkijian said he sees the same thing – new drivers get licensed, and they’ll go run a coal truck. The county has been short on drivers for years as well, Betkijian said.
How counties are working around the bus driver shortages
Like the school buses themselves, counties have taken all sorts of routes to get the kids to and from school. Some counties are doubling up on routes; others have had to cancel them straight up.
That was the case in Mason County, where state Sen. Amy Grady, a fourth grade teacher, said she has had students miss up to 19 days of school due to canceled runs.
In Cabell County, transportation director Dan Gleason said he subbed in on a few routes himself. This year, Gleason said his ranks are thin, but everything is covered by full-time substitute drivers, who conduct bus runs then work another job during the school day, like maintenance.
Monongalia County uses its mechanics to fill in as needed, according to superintendent Eddie Campbell. But when mechanics are on the road, repairs can stack up in the bus garage.
Jeff Hylton, transportation director of Wyoming County Schools, said he never uses a mechanic — he’d rather cancel a trip or double up the runs.
“If I have a mechanic out there driving a bus, they can’t work on the buses to keep them safe and update on inspection,” he said.
While it’s still early in the school year to see how the bus driver shortage pans out, Joe White of the state’s School Service Personnel Association said the fix is pretty simple.
“I’ve said it 1,000 times and now I’ll say it 1,001 — you can try and spin it however you want — you’re not going to fill these positions unless you compensate people for what they’re worth,” he said.
During the 2023 regular session, school service personnel were included in a 5% pay raise for state workers, which amounted to about a $2,300 increase at the bottom of the scale.
Del. Chris Toney, R-Raleigh, the sponsor behind the retiree legislation, said he doesn’t believe it “is a one-time or a one-sizes-fits-all fix.”
“Right now, I think we need to let this legislation have the opportunity to make a difference first,” he said.
As for Yeager, she doesn’t know whether she’ll break the 140-day cap or not this year. But she said she keeps driving because she doesn’t want to sit at home.
“It’s the social aspect,” she said. “It gives me something to do — I didn’t want to just sit there and die. Last night, Dupont Middle School won — that’s where I went. So whenever they win, I get on the radio and sing the victory song — the kids really love that.”
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