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Bus driver shortage continues as Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools prepare to open

CLARKSVILLE, TN (CLARKSVILLE NOW) – The 2021-22 year was a tough one for the Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools Transportation Department due to driver shortages. The challenge included around 250 routes, over 6,879 morning bus stops, and about 23,000 students assigned to a bus, according to CMCSS spokesperson Anthony Johnson.

“Around 42 of the routes were open last year, and we added an additional 42 double runs due to the driver shortage,” he said.

A current CMCSS bus driver talks to a job applicant about just how school buses operate and what the job entails during a recent job fair. (Contributed, CMCSS)

It’s a bit too early to tell what the bus routes will look like this year, with the first half-day coming up Aug. 8, but as it stands, the driver shortage has continued.

“CMCSS still needs around 80 more bus drivers and substitute bus drivers so that all routes can be covered without interruption or the need for double-run routes,” he said.

That has led the school system to tighten the bus zones starting this fall, expanding the areas near schools where parents and students are responsible for either walking or providing their own transportation.

What’s causing the shortage?

There are many factors causing the driver shortage.

“CMCSS, districts across the state and nation, and other industries that need CDL (commercial driver’s license) drivers have been navigating work force concerns for the past few years. However, the pandemic exacerbated the issues, and last year was certainly the most difficult yet for CMCSS,” Johnson said.

Other factors exacerbated the driver shortage, including competition among companies. “CDL drivers are in high demand, and the private sector is paying top dollar,” he said. “Additionally, since there is a national bus driver shortage, school systems are competing for drivers from neighboring communities.”

Raising pay, advertising

Johnson said the district has increased its advertising, job fair and retention efforts, along with the pay. Starting pay for bus drivers has been raised by $2.39 per hour, from $16.27 to $18.66, with a new range of $18.66-$27.72.

CMCSS also offers a sign-on bonus of $1,000 for new drivers, a referral bonus of $1,000 for current drivers, and stipends for driving extra routes at $10 per additional route, in addition to regular pay, he said.

For retention, there’s a performance end-of-year bonus of $600 for drivers who have been with CMCSS 18 months or more.

Johnson said bus drivers work a 191-day, six-hour schedule. “While this is very advantageous for many employees who are seeking a flexible schedule, those who seek a traditional year-round, 40-hour week may not pursue driving a bus,” he said. “CMCSS bus drivers enjoy a flexible work schedule while still getting full benefits.”

One potential CMCSS bus drivers stand in front of a fleet of CMCSS school buses during a recent job fair. (Contributed, CMCSS)

Handling student behavior issues

Another factor in the bus driver shortage is student behavior.

“A lack of respect for the profession and student, and in some cases adult behaviors are commonly referenced as concerns. CMCSS is continuing to engage families and the community; refine internal systems, processes, and training; and improve social and emotional learning resources to address escalating behaviors observed over the past few years” Johnson said.

“Training on how to handle school bus situations is offered by the district as a way to provide bus drivers with tools on how to handle and de-escalate situations that may arise,” he said. “CMCSS bus drivers receive annual training on student behavior management.”

Johnson said a stringent protocol is in place, which drivers are taught to use if there’s a behavior problem on the bus.

“Student management is taught at each in-service. Bus drivers are trained to de-escalate and separate the students in conflict, relocating one to the front of the bus and the other to the back of the bus, until the students are delivered to their appropriate stops. In the event the fight escalates out of control, dispatch will refer the call to 911 and school administration is contacted,” Johnson said.

He said this training is done in collaboration with the Instruction and Curriculum Department and incorporates best practices from classroom management for consistency. “If drivers need additional support with behavior management, there are driver supervisors, bus drivers and district support personnel to provide training and assistance. Additionally, bus aides/bus monitors assist on buses as needed.”

Becoming a bus driver

For those wanting to test the waters, there are opportunities available. “Interested applicants can test drive a school bus without the CDL certification requirement,” Johnson said. “Test drive opportunities are offered at job fairs.”

While CDL certification is required, Johnson said the district provides free training.

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