School district proposes new bell schedule, OKs salary increases to address bus driver shortage
Following an outpouring of public comments, the local district came up with several new solutions, including a $5 hourly salary increase for drivers
The local district received an outpouring of public comments during the last few weeks over the decision to standardize bell times across grade levels. This decision is intended to counteract the district’s bus driver shortage.
As it currently stands, with 18 of its required 35 drivers, the district is unable to provide transportation services to those who need it with the current schedule.
Nearly 2,300 staff members and parents responded to the district’s most recent survey, its second in two weeks. The goal of the survey was to gauge public opinion on several solutions to addressing the district’s bus driver shortage.
Sandra Mutchler, the district’s chief operating officer, and Tim Owsley, the district’s director of transportation, presented the findings of the survey to the Eagle County Board on Education at a special meeting Wednesday.
The survey presented respondents several options for a new three-tiered bell schedule. However, the responses did not indicate a specific, majority preference and most comments requested the district come up with additional solutions for addressing the problem.
“We certainly heard that the solutions shouldn’t be worse than the problem,” said Superintendent Phillip Qualman, adding that this is where the district was at “with our previous attempts.”
Many respondents commented that the new bell times were either too early or too late, which they said would create a number of problems. These problems included concerns over having children, particularly elementary students, standing in the dark and in the cold; timing complications for families that rely on older students as child care for their younger students; the impact on after-school activities if school ends too late; complications for working parents; and more.
A new plan
In order to address these concerns, the district presented a new solution, which it will be collecting public input through emails sent to the transportation department over the next few weeks. The district’s Board of Education will vote on this new plan at the June 23 board meeting.
“What we would like to propose instead of moving to the three-tiered system is doing everything we can to stay within a two-tier, where we only have one 45-minute gap between the two levels,” Mutchler said. “If we’re able to create that 45-minute span, that allows us to get the majority of the students picked up, dropped off and back out again.”
The new plan proposes a two-tier bell schedule in which elementary schools and Homestake Peak School start between 7:45 a.m. and 8 a.m. Middle schools and high schools would then start between 8 a.m. and 8:45 a.m. These times were selected based on the survey results, which identified 7:45 a.m. as the most desirable start time.
The tiered bus schedule is something that the district maintains will be the most effective way to continue to offer its transportation services to those who rely on it.
However, having a two-tiered bell schedule rather than three-tiered would still not be enough to address the bus driver shortage as it stands today. For that reason, Mutchler and Owsley offered to the board the following additional strategies be implemented, depending on how many drivers the district is able to hire by August.
- Increase the self-transit distance: In order to decrease the total mileage the drivers have to travel and based on ridership numbers, the school would require those students furthest from the schools to be self-transported to the nearest bus stop. It has also been discussed increasing the self-transit radius around schools.
- Further consolidate routes: This would change and eliminate routes in order to prioritize high-density areas of students that rely on transportation, allowing the district to get as many students as possible to school.
- Utilize public transportation options: This would incentivize and enable age-appropriate students to access local transportation and additional options.
In order to operate fully on the two-tiered schedule, without deploying the above additional options, the district would need to have 35 total drivers. Which is why, in addition to its new bell schedule, the district also suggested a significant pay raise for bus drivers in order to improve its recruiting efforts.
“We want to provide increased wages as an incentive to attract and train our transportation employees,” Mutchler said. “We’d like to recommend a salary increase, but wanted to go with a number that will be impactful and get people through the door.”
Currently, the starting salary for bus drivers is $18.22 an hour, with the maximum a driver can be paid, with incremental increases made over time, at $27.53 an hour. In order to increase its competitiveness and recruit and retain more drivers, the district proposed a $5 hourly increase in salary rates. This increases the starting salary to $23.20 an hour, and the maximum a driver can be paid at $32.53 an hour.
Overall, this significant increase in salary would cost the district $329,000, should the district be able to hire 18 new drivers. It expects changes in the Colorado School Funding formula will provide adequate revenue to support this salary hike.
“We’re in a challenging hiring market for all positions right now, this just happens to be the most acute and will have the most impact on whether we can actually get kids in the door.” Qualman said. “We need to be mindful that we are comfortable making this change to recruit more drivers, but when August rolls around, this is not something that we can continue to duplicate for every employee class that we have. We’re basically putting all of our powder into this cannon and trying to get drivers.”
While the board didn’t vote directly on this raise — it will formally approve the raise when it votes on next year’s budget at the June 23 board meeting — there was a consensus that this was the right move to make. As such, the district said it would begin to use these new salary numbers in its recruiting efforts starting this week.
“Bus drivers should be paid more, it’s a huge responsibility, and we have our children’s lives in their hands. We need to do everything we can to recruit more bus drivers,” said Kelly Alter, an Eagle County Schools board member.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.