By Dedra Cordle
South-Western City School bus drivers say while they applaud the measure the board of education took last month to raise hourly wages to attract substitute drivers, more needs to be done to retain the staff it currently has on hand.
On Oct. 11, dozens of bus drivers and bus aides packed the auditorium at Franklin Heights High School where the regular board of education meeting was being held. Multiple employees addressed the board, all sharing a message that they feel overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid.
Among those speaking at the meeting was Jason Chadwell, who has been a bus driver for the district for the last five years.
He said while he understands there is a nationwide staffing shortage of bus drivers and substitute drivers, he believes the current drivers are taking on too many routes, adding additional stressors onto an already stressful job.
“I love my job, we all do. That is why we are here,” said Chadwell. “We drive because we care about our students. We enjoy the work and we are proud of the work we do on a daily basis. However, the driver shortage, double trips, cross-overs, packing multiple routes on a single bus can make transporting students more stressful. You can imagine if you have a stressed driver it’s not as safe.”
He said while it is true that by picking up additional routes, the drivers get home more quickly but added they would rather feel safer than be home at a certain time.
“I cannot think of any industry where increased speed equals increased safety,” he said.
Chadwell reiterated that the staffing shortage is being felt across the country and gave a few examples of why he felt that was the case. He mentioned burn out, motorists who do not pay attention to their stop indicators, and insufficient compensation as some of the general reasons as to why there is a shortage.
He said it was his belief that some of those issues could be addressed if the district were to raise the wages and benefit packages of the regular drivers to a level that is comparable to similar-sized districts.
“Our wages represent about $21,000 a year per regular driver,” he said. “Columbus (City Schools) and Cleveland (Metropolitan Schools) drivers both average about $30,000 a year. What is the incentive to stay? We do it because we like where we’re from and we love our students.”
He said this problem will not be solved “from the bottom up, asking people to do more with less.”
“This problem needs people at the top to make bold decisions, to assure that certified staff are essential to our district and treat them as such,” Chadwell.
Adam Wolfe, a driver at the district for more than two decades, shared similar sentiments while addressing the board.
He said these past two years have been the most challenging years as a bus driver with the added routes, the additional cleaning protocols and now having to enforce mask protocols on the bus.
“It is very difficult to operate our buses safely while making sure each student is wearing a mask properly,” he said. “There is only so much we can do to keep the ride safe for our students.”
Wolfe said he too would like to see the district take measures to “improve the working conditions, safety, job security, and the long-term financial stability” of the drivers who work at South-Western City Schools.
When asked to respond to some of the topics broached by the transportation employees, district officials said they cannot offer a comment as the board of education is currently in contract negotiations with the Ohio Association of Public School Employees. That is the labor union that represents classified staff such as bus drivers.
However, Monte Detterman, the district’s director of business services, did clarify some points made about staffing shortages and masking requirements.
According to Detterman, the bus driver staffing shortages are at the substitute level and the district has been taking measures to address the issue. He mentioned that the board approved an hourly rate hike for substitute drivers last month along with an additional monetary stipend if they continue working at the district for a specific amount of time. He added that the district has recently hired three new drivers but cautioned it will not be a quick turnaround to get them on the road.
“It can take up to six weeks to get drivers through the CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) certification training and get them on the road,” Detterman said. “But six weeks is the minimum amount of time so it definitely could be longer.”
He said while the district wants to attract drivers who currently have CDL certification, they will provide training for those who do not. Interested parties can check under the employment section on the district’s website at swcsd.us or by calling the transportation department at 614-801-8550.
As for requiring drivers to ensure students are wearing a mask while on the bus, Detterman said that is a federal mandate the district has to follow.
“All riders on any kind of mass transit have to wear a mask,” he said.