The year got off to a rough start for bus drivers serving Durham Public Schools in North Carolina.
A technical glitch delayed pay from the bank to DPS hourly employees – including bus drivers, substitute teachers, and other staff.
Mathew Palmer, the executive director for school planning, transportation, and nutrition, relied on an advisory board of DPS transportation workers to help reassure the rank-and-file drivers that the checks would come. Indeed, they did, the following business day. The district even managed to include a small bonus as a token of appreciation for their patience.
“The response was positive,” Palmer says. “I think folks recognized and appreciated that we sent multiple messages, letting them know we’re here for them.”
These days, it’s hard enough keeping school bus drivers without scaring them over missed paychecks. Durham has about 160 route drivers on average, he says, to make sure 30,000 students make it to and from school each day. The district hired 19 new drivers since the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year but lost 33 (so far).
The job’s not for everyone. You’re hauling 60 kids, responsible for their safety, patience tested by their behavior, stressed by traffic and the need to sanitize the bus between routes to protect yourself and your passengers from the COVID plague that shut down schools in 2020. You’re up at the crack of dawn for the morning route, wait through the middle of the day, and then take students home in the afternoon.
“They leave their own kids at 5 a.m. to take care of other people’s kids. Their love of those kids is what keeps them in the game. But we can only lean on that for so long. It’s not a long-term strategy.” – Mathew Palmer
“At some point, it’s not about money,” Palmer says. “At some point, this is about satisfaction, stress, logistics, and being gone from home for 12 hours. They leave their own kids at 5 a.m. to take care of other people’s kids. Their love of those kids is what keeps them in the game. But we can only lean on that for so long. It’s not a long-term strategy.”
So DPS started the advisory board to give drivers and bus monitors more voice. They’ve established a 13-point “Growing the Extra Mile” plan that includes:
- Monthly consistency bonus for bus drivers
- Stable 40-hour weekly schedule
- Traffic control support
- Improved communication
In January, the district’s Board of Education approved hiring a new transportation planner – not just to support the familiar yellow bus, but also for students who walk, ride a bicycle, or might use some other form of passenger transportation.
“We’ve never had a dedicated person to focus on that before,” Palmer says. “When you travel to and from school twice a day for 13 years, that’s about 5,000 trips from home to school. For many of our kids, that’s days, months of childhood spent on a bus or walking, biking, riding transit. We’re trying to look at the whole experiential envelope.”
He’s also battling the legacy – in Durham and beyond – of failing to adequately support school transportation drivers in the past.
“We want to make sure our drivers have opportunity ramps through continuing education if they want to learn routing or develop customer service experience,” Palmer says. “We’d love for folks to join and if they want to drive for 30 years, great. But if they want other opportunities to grow in DPS, we need to make that happen too.”
For the drivers that stick around, Palmer says, the district wants to use more advanced technology to improve work life: full data integration so parents know when their children get on and off the bus, tablet integration, turn-by-turn navigation, even route modification depending on the day.
“That’s our next step, really: thinking through what we need to do to support them,” he says. “It can’t be ‘Here’s the keys, here’s the bus, here’s the kids – see you in six hours.’ We can do so much more. So that’s where we’re going.”