A shortage of school bus drivers in the state has reached crisis level, and it’s no different for Henderson County Schools, says Superintendent Dr. Bob Lawson.
The recent loss of two drivers has led to HCS stopping bus service to students living within the areas from Sand Lane to Washington Street and Alvasia Street to Atkinson Street. This area is roughly a 1-mile radius of South Heights School. The first day of school is Wednesday, Aug. 9.
On July 31, Lawson sent a letter to parents explaining the policy.
“This area will now become a walker area, meaning students living in that area can either walk to school or be dropped off as a car rider,” said the letter.
The letter said that the decision was made because the HCS transportation department is “facing a significant shortage of school bus drivers.” The district is “actively searching for individuals who are willing to join our team as bus drivers,” said the letter.
“We absolutely want to transport the kids,” Lawson said in a Monday interview with the Hendersonian. “All this comes back to a bus driver shortage.”
HCS has been losing school bus drivers for many years now, Lawson said. One of the policies to deal with this shortage started about ten years ago, when the school system stopped busing students who lived within a 1-mile radius of the school they attended.
The East End/Inner City area was excluded from that policy because of safety concerns in those neighborhoods, Lawson said. Last year, he said, “we were barely able to pull it together” to continue to serve bus riders in the area.
This year, with the loss of two more drivers, district made the call to implement the 1-mile radius walker or car rider policy in the area.
Still, school officials are attempting to find a last-minute solution to offer bus service in the area. They’ve been in contact with county and city government officials and were scheduled to meet with both Monday afternoon.
Henderson County Judge-Executive Brad Schneider said the county road department has an employee who until recently had been a bus driver with the school system. He said county government is pursuing ways to allow this employee to drive students to school in the morning and home in the afternoon while still working for the county in-between those bus routes.
The city is also looking at ways to help. Henderson Mayor Brad Staton said a meeting was scheduled for Monday between city and school officials. Lawson said there might be a possibility of using HART buses for the school bus routes.
But no matter the outcome of the meetings, school officials know the solutions will only be a “band-aid” on the greater problem, Lawson said.
“The key to all this is more people,” said Chad Thompson, HCS assistant superintendent of teaching and learning.
Lawson said the school system has raised pay rates, and it is looking at many other ideas to fix the local bus driver shortage. Another roadblock for many who could drive is the extra certification needed to drive a school bus—it’s not just a CDL. Thompson said the process was extensive.
Last year, to make up for driver shortages, employees—not employed as drivers—in the HCS transportation department garage filled in driving routes. Thompson said it was not uncommon for him to come to the garage to answer phones while the rest of the employees, except one mechanic who stayed in the garage, drove routes. That included HCS Director of Transportation Wes Alexander, who Thompson said was out on the road about three days each week last year.
School officials know the bus driver shortage will be a problem well into the foreseeable future—not just for the South Heights area but the entire county.
As with other problems and concerns that have occurred in Henderson, Lawson said he’s reaching out to the community for any solutions.
“I think we’ve got people, a collaborative group of leaders, who want to do good,” Lawson said.
The school system transports about 4,000 students to school each day.
Lawson said he will attend a 5:30 p.m. Tuesday Love Your Neighborhood meeting at Audubon Kids Zone to address the new policy with those affected. The meeting’s goal is to find solutions to the bus driver shortage, according to an AKZ post on Facebook. Several community partners, nonprofits and church representatives will attend, said the post.
Check back with the Hendersonian for updated information: www.the-hendersonian.com.