CHCCS paying $20 for school bus drivers; board mulls options


Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools operates three high schools, four middle schools, eleven elementary schools and other campuses.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board voted Tuesday to offer $20 an hour to new bus drivers and raise the salaries of existing drivers this summer in a bid to fill over two dozen critical vacancies.

“I think the board understands that we’re in a crisis situation when we have so many of our bus routes uncovered, and every day, we see the messages going out about buses that are delayed or not able to go,” board Chair Rani Dasi said.

The $3.38 increase per hour makes CHCCS bus drivers the highest paid in the Triangle, topping Durham Public Schools, which pays $18.13 an hour, and Wake County Public Schools, which pays $17.20.

CHCCS drivers also will earn more than Chapel Hill Transit and GoDurham bus drivers.

Additional changes will be considered this spring, including the possibility of consolidating stops and changing the bell schedule for the district’s 11 elementary schools. Seven of the schools would operate from 7:30 a.m. to 2:10 p.m., and four others would operate from 7:50 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Another option would require students who attend the district’s magnet schools to take a bus to their local school, where other buses would transfer them to their assigned magnet programs.

The district has not yet scheduled a public hearing on the proposed changes. If approved, the changes would not take effect until the 2023-24 school year starts in August.

Bus driver shortage reduces class time

The district has had a severe need for bus drivers for some time, with over 6,600 students relying on a bus to get to school every day, Chief Operations Officer André Stewart told the board Tuesday. Between November and February, the district only had enough drivers to keep every bus on the road for 44 out of 52 school days, he said.

The driver vacancy rate is 45%, district spokesman Andy Jenks told The News & Observer in January.

It’s part of a larger national shortage and is affecting the time students spend in the classroom, Superintendent Nyah Hamlett said.

On average, Stewart noted, the shortage has cost high school students roughly 30 minutes of instructional time each day they’re late, while elementary and middle school students miss an hour of class time. Since November, that added up to two whole days outside the classroom for high school students, three days for middle school students, and one day for elementary students, he said.

The shortage also reduces student access to breakfast and extracurricular activities, while putting an additional burden on staff members who cover extra routes and teachers who stay later to supervise students still waiting for a bus ride home, Hamlett said.

“So ultimately, we do need to be positioned to consistently provide safe, efficient and economical transportation services for our students to access the education that they have a right to per CHCCS policy and state law,” she said.

The district emailed families about the possible changes on Friday, The N&O has reported.

North Carolina’s current state budget pays public school support staff, including bus drivers, a minimum of $15 an hour, with individual districts adding their own supplements and bonuses. Chapel Hill-Carrboro bus drivers currently earn $16.62 an hour.

Walk to school, other options

Board member Riza Jenkins expressed concern for how changing schedules could affect bus drivers who already leave home before dawn and may have to leave their children at childcare.

“It’s not like our bus drivers are coming from one of the neighborhoods across town,” Jenkins said. “They’re also coming very long distances to come here, so that means if they have to report at 6 a.m., they’re leaving home long before that, and they’re also getting home long after many of us are home and eating dinner or whatever.”

Board members also discussed working with Chapel Hill and Carrboro to make the areas around the schools safer for students who can walk or ride their bikes to school. Other creative solutions could include giving bus drivers a place to drop off their kids, or offering them benefits or full-time positions, board member Deon Temne said.

“But the loss of instructional hours for our most average students is why I say we’ve got to get them to school on time, and if that stops the bleeding right now, that’s what we need to be doing,” he said.

The other concern, Dasi said, is requiring teachers to leave earlier for school and students to wait for the bus in the dark.

“I think we know teachers come from 20 to 30 (minutes) to an hour away, and asking them to do that up to a half an hour earlier just doesn’t feel like the starting solution,” Dasi said. “I appreciate what my board members have said, that we may have to come back to that, but I would like to try everything we can before we get to that point.”

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this article.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.

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