Safety Check: Fixing Anne Arundel County School Bus Transportation is a Necessity

For a few short weeks, it appeared that Anne Arundel County had mostly fixed its severe school bus driver shortage. Don’t get too comfortable yet.

Such a fix is the “pot-hole” approach, a temporary fix. The County filled gaps by offering bonuses and a slight increase in pay, but that pay is not equal across all contractors. Some make more, some less. As a school bus driver for the County and one on the front lines of school transportation, I’d like to offer some tips (whoever will possibly listen) to permanently change the school bus driver shortage in the County.

Like most organizations, those on top, with the least understanding of day-to-day frontline operations, seldom listen to their employees or understand our day-to-day pressures. If such continues, school bus transportation in Anne Arundel County will continue to be all over the place, possibly even tragic.

Few other jobs are as important as transporting kids on dangerous highways. If I make a mistake, I make national news. Worse, many kids pay a price. Yet, school bus transportation has been in crisis for decades. Where I lived in 1994, a county school bus driver in rural New York made $16 per hour full-time with full benefits. Today, many drivers make $19 an hour with no benefits. Benefits may be offered, but the driver has to pay outrageous costs. Here is a quick education on the Anne Arundel County transportation system from the eyes of a school bus driver.

Anne Arundel County uses Contractors, not Anne Arundel County Public School Buses

You will never see an Anne Arundel County Public School bus transport public school kids to a public school. Official Anne Arundel County school bus drivers handle many special needs kids at private schools. Contractors handle special needs kids at public schools. We also handle all the other kids. How to tell the difference? The buses with “Anne Arundel County Public Schools” logos on the side of the bus have “official” public school bus drivers. The vast majority, about 90% of all Anne Arundel County Public School kids, are transported by contractors, several of them, with different policies, communication systems, and drivers that cannot communicate with each other. Contrary to what Transportation will tell you, many of us don’t even get updated lists of what kids ride on our buses. Officially, my middle school run has 16 kids on the roster. I actually have over 60. The school told me that it cannot generate a list.

The County transportation system is a hodge-podge of different buses, drivers, policies, and pay rates. Some drivers make $19 an hour, and some make over $25 an hour. If you see a bus without the AACPS logo, it’s likely the actual public school bus transporting your kids.

Anyone that does program or institutional assessments as I have can see a lot of very serious problems with what I just wrote. My goal is not to eliminate contractors or criticize a county that I love and that made my home. Yet, you all should know what is going on. I’d like to make the system better and more streamlined for the sake of our kids.

I am a bus driver because I want to be, and I have to fight and fight to try to do this job. I can make six figures. I choose not to because I want to serve my community. I love my job, but $34,000 or under a year, cannot sustain an Anne Arundel County resident in Arnold or Annapolis. This does not include benefits (only some sick days). Though benefits are offered, the driver has to pay 100%. I have to pay $500 per month for a health plan with a $7500 deductible through the Maryland Health Exchange.  There are no other benefits because my contractor cannot afford to offer better benefits, though the contractor does try to come up with alternatives. Not all contractors try as hard.

The Public-School Transportation Loophole: Contracted School Bus Drivers Get Little to No Benefits

Other companies are large and make a ton of money, but they do not pay much in reducing costs to drivers. Instead, they try to spin bus driving as something for retirees or stay-at-home parents to do. Many of your drivers are elderly.  We have few young people in the profession. Parents are busy raising kids and may have to take off from work. If they take off, they often don’t get paid. When COVID hit, we lost many elderly drivers. A healthy company needs younger and older drivers. This should be a profession that draws young people.

School bus drivers do not get paid for snow days, breaks, days off, or holidays, and, if route drivers, we don’t get paid in-between runs. Some contractors, mine included, do not pay into unemployment or compensation. If we get injured on the job, tough luck. We cannot draw unemployment in the summer.

The problem with paying only in the mornings and afternoons is that we have a gap of 3 or so hours where we are expected to be available but are not compensated. Schools have many early dismissals and some late starts. We have weather events. We are expected to be there, yet we are not paid. Should we pay our police only when they have an emergency? If so, we’d have a worse policing crisis than we do now. Yes, our job is just as important.

For example, I get in at 6:15 am in the morning, and I finish at 5:15 pm at night. I get paid for 6 hours of driving. I put in 11 but get paid for 6 hours. We should be compensated for what really is layover time because our time is money, just like everyone else’s. I am fine with a contractor not paying for a lunch break, but we should be compensated for the whole day, at least 8 hours. If not, we are stuck in poverty.

Driver Retention

This is why we have a severe driver shortage because children and education have always been devalued in our society. I think it’s because kids cannot vote, so lawmakers don’t care about kids. We see this with school shootings. Few lawmakers are doing anything about it. In some cases, lawmakers are making schools less safe.

A parent may love their child and try to advocate. Do parents know what we face as drivers? I am not trying to be rich, but driving a school bus has a lot of demands: no drugs, very careful drinking, a clean criminal and driving record, a lot of patience, being good with kids, and maintaining safe boundaries. I am trying to survive and do a job I love. I should not be expected to pick up extra charter routes and work 80 hours per week. That can compromise school safety because I am tired and distracted. I know of drivers that drove school buses with less than 3 hours of sleep. This is a federal violation that happens all too often. Yet, contractors are so desperate to fill the driver’s seat that often they feel they have little choice.

The County has to find the money. They have the money but not the motivation or willpower. The pot-hole system is stumbling along until something very bad happens. It’s just a matter of time.

Bonuses are Carrots for Donkeys and Drivers

The County has tried to fix the driver shortage, in large part, with bonuses. But this is a temporary fix. Drivers like and need the extra money. The bonuses, however, do not add to our overall pay rate, and there is a 40% tax deduction on them. We are being lured like donkeys chasing carrots, but that will only work so long. It’s bound to collapse soon, and it will.

Without better pay and benefits, the crisis will continue indefinitely. These need to be supplied by the County in an agreement between contractors and the Anne Arundel County Public Schools. It’s a bigger pot, so the benefits will cost less. The County should not just blame the contractor for poor benefits or wages. We may not be “real” school bus drivers, but we transport real kids.

We’ve become accustomed to quick fixes. Politicians love quick fixes, but the problems are still there. This is not a democratic or conservative issue: it’s a kids’ safety issue for all of us.

School Safety is Severely Compromised, and so is Mental Health

Not only is the repeated training of potential new school bus drivers very costly for the County and for contractors, but the revolving door also creates serious safety issues. New drivers make more mistakes. Like most jobs, we learn mostly on the road with actual kids. This is a complex and difficult job. We operate heavy, dangerous vehicles. Drivers see us as an impediment to their day, often ignoring our reds, racing through our amber lights with total disregard that they could kill a child. The County seldom enforces school bus safety laws and few buses have outside cameras linked to the police.

Most in transportation completely overlook the role school bus drivers play in a child’s mental health. Kids have simply become bodies to pick up and drop off, no matter if they are late or, in some cases, not picked up at all. We are told that if a kid is freezing, “It will toughen them up.” I have been told by other drivers to be mean to kids, and not to care about them being late. I think our kids have gone through enough these past few years.

Kids need normalcy. They need the same driver. That driver learns them, knows them. Many times, the school bus is the only place of refuge and happiness for a child. I know I was very stressed out whenever I had a new driver as a child. I was afraid they would not stop at my house, that they would forget me.

Plenty of us like kids, but we tend to be the regular route drivers that are in short supply. I missed one day this year. A middle school boy got on the bus and said to me, “Thank God you are back.” If my contractor or the County pulls my runs from me, I will quit on the spot and tell my parents why. Route drivers have no stability, and the County can change runs on a whim. That upsets kids and parents. Kids are not objects. They are in a mental health crisis. Transportation plays a critical role in kids’ and teens’ mental health. I am the first “county” person kids see and the last one they see.

It matters. We matter. Your kids matter. Most parents don’t even know who drives their kids to school. I am a pilot on wheels with immense responsibility. This year, when National School Bus Driver Appreciation Day came, the County and schools did nothing for us. Not a thing. Things are definitely getting back to normal. I even wrote County Executive Steuart Pittman’s communications person and noted this lack of acknowledgment. I got no response. Such shows how little attention school bus transportation has on our County Executive’s radar.

A Final Note: Safety at Schools

In the unfortunate event that a tragedy happens on a bus or at a school in Anne Arundel County, school bus drivers have no efficient way to communicate with fellow drivers or law enforcement. Schools have no efficient way to communicate with drivers. Because several contractors serve each school, if there is a lockdown, shelter-in-place order, or dangerous weather, such cannot be reported easily to drivers. Each contractor would have to be called, and each contractor would have to contact each bus. The problem is that because of driver shortages, most managers are on the road and unable to communicate easily with the school.

Not all buses have radios. Some radios are out of range, and some, like mine, have radios, phones, and GPS. But even with my radio, phone, and GPS, we have no streamlined emergency system or code to let schools, police, and other first responders know of an imminent emergency. We also cannot use phones because do you want a bus driver texting and driving like so many regular drivers?

In PG County, drivers have a code word and access to the police radio. All they need to do is say the code and the entire county knows the location of the bus and the emergency. Such a centralized system can alert drivers from school as well.

Streamlined communication can save countless lives in the event of an emergency. If that does not get our attention, nothing else will until something very bad happens. Then the County will be looking for someone to blame. The County is to blame. Those on top know they have these problems but are looking for quick and easy fixes. Such fixes are not fixes at all. At its very best, it’s simply life support. Our age demands a complete lack of accountability. If you are the one on top, it’s your fault, period.

I love this County, the school system, and my job. I write this because I value my students and actually listen to them. I want “my” kids to always come back from school, but I don’t make the rules or make the profession. It’s time Anne Arundel County takes the lead in showing other counties how to do transportation safely. That starts with the County working with contractors to make school bus driving a professional career, not a side job.