POLK COUNTY, Fla. — To deal with a significant, ongoing shortage of school bus drivers, a school district here is planning to increase the starting pay it offers and remove an education requirement.
Polk County Public Schools’ board of directors voted unanimously in a meeting on Tuesday to raise the starting base pay for bus drivers to $13.40 an hour, according to a news release from the school district.
Up until now, all of the district's school bus drivers have started as substitutes, earning $10 an hour, and can become full-time bus drivers within a few weeks or sooner. At that point, their pay increases to $12.18 per hour.
The proposed pay boost is part of a greater, tentative compromise that was recently negotiated with one of Polk County Public Schools’ employee unions, according to the district. The agreement still needs to be put to a vote by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 2227, which represents about 2,500 employees, including custodians, school bus drivers, and school nutrition personnel.
“Our bus drivers are absolutely essential to our mission of delivering high-quality education,” said Rob Davis, the assistant superintendent of support services for Polk County Public Schools. “They set the tone for the students’ days. We train them to set an environment that is conducive to learning as soon as the student gets on the bus.”
Davis added that with higher pay for bus drivers, Polk County Public Schools will be more competitive with its neighboring counties, as well as with charter schools within its district.
“Many of our bus drivers could very easily go work across the county line,” he said. “They’re looking for more pay. I’m very pleased we are working with AFSCME toward an agreement that will increase our bus drivers’ pay — because they deserve it.”
The tentative agreement with AFSCME also provides further compensation, including a 1.5% increase for a cost-of-living adjustment. This tentative agreement and its other proposed compensation must go before the union for a vote.
If the new bus driver pay is approved, Polk County Public Schools would become one of the highest-paying school districts in central Florida for bus drivers, according to the district.
In addition to the agreement, school board members voted unanimously to change Polk County Public Schools' job description for school bus drivers. Prospective permanent bus drivers are no longer required to have a high school or GED diploma. Instead, this educational background is now only preferred by the district.
“In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to recruit bus drivers,” said Jacqueline Byrd, the district’s superintendent. “We are pleased by the board’s decision to make the high school diploma/GED ‘preferred’ but not required of our bus drivers. This will make a larger pool of applicants eligible to drive for Polk County Public Schools and, we expect, it will make it easier to fill those crucial positions.”
Polk County Public Schools’ efforts to deepen the pool of potential driver candidates come as it has struggled with school transportation delays during the first couple of weeks of the new school year. As of mid-August, when the school year started, the district needed to fill 62 driver positions, and encouraged parents to transport their children to and from school if possible. The current shortage is the most significant that the district has seen during the back-to-school period, district officials had told ABC Action News.
Currently, Polk County Public Schools still needs to fill dozens of driver positions, FOX 13 reports. To bridge the gap, bus drivers are covering extra routes, there are more students on buses, and commute times are longer, according to the news source.