Richmond schools fill bus driver vacancies, but still looking for backups
While some school districts in Virginia and across the country are still struggling with a bus driver shortage, Richmond Public Schools has filled all of its bus driver vacancies and is still hiring.
“We’re not going to stop [hiring] because we always need subs,” said Floyd Miles, director of transportation for RPS.
The district, like many others, was hit hard by the pandemic: Some drivers died after contracting COVID-19 and others quit over COVID concerns. At the lowest point, Miles said, they were down to about 110 drivers out of the 150 needed.
“We had a lot of older drivers that decided, ‘I don’t think I want to be with children and drive,'” Miles said.
Now, districts like Richmond have been working hard to stay competitive in order to attract new drivers. RPS is now back to where they need to be with about 150 drivers after raising pay to $23 an hour, above what the other neighboring districts are offering. Chesterfield County now pays a little over $20 an hour, and Henrico County pays around $17 an hour.
Curt Macysyn, executive director of the national school transportation association, said the industry has historically attracted older individuals including retirees — especially teachers and school staff — who decide to drive a bus because they still want to work part time.
“A lot of what we see is that folks want to maintain that connection with the school district. And so, you'll see that manifest itself in them joining the fleet of bus drivers, which I think is cool and unique,” Macysyn said.
Macysyn said districts now have to do more to attract younger drivers to the industry. A common trait among bus drivers — regardless of age — is their sense of community, he said.
“They're civically minded people,” Macysyn said.
That’s the case for new Richmond bus drivers Niesha Henderson and Marc Houston. Both started their new roles this past summer, right before the start of the school year. Henderson said she heard about the positions on the news, and Houston heard about them in the paper.
For Henderson, deciding to become a bus driver was simple: She wanted to make sure kids like her son got to school and back home safely without a long commute or wait.
Her 17-year-old son attends Huguenot High School, and last year she asked him why he would get home an hour late from school.
“He said the bus would have to double back,” Henderson said. “So, to ease the minds of other mothers, I became a school bus driver.”
Before the pandemic, Henderson was a school bus driver for Chesterfield County Public Schools and more recently drove tractor trailers. She said that experience made driving a bus in Richmond a piece of cake. And even though she was making more money in her previous role, she’s loving her new job.
“I have a heart for kids, I love kids,” Henderson said. “I tell them once you come on this bus, you’re my baby. So, I’ve got a whole bunch of kids now.”
Houston loves kids, too, and used to be a children’s chess coach. But he was on the fence about whether or not to take the Richmond bus driver job after applying because the pay was comparable with his previous job as a fountain installer for Coca-Cola. But he said it was the work atmosphere under the leadership of Miles, the transportation director, that convinced him.
“It's like a family atmosphere over here,” Houston said. “They really pulled me in. You have to feel good when you’re at work. That’s very important to me.”
Houston said he also considered a bus driver position with Henrico County Public Schools, where his 15-year-old daughter goes to school, but the pay was not comparable to what Richmond was offering.
“So, it was a no-brainer,” Houston said. “I love kids, but I gotta pay my bills, too.”
In addition to raising its pay recently, Miles said RPS is able to offer six, seven and eight-hour contracts, unlike other districts that only offer six-hour daily shifts. And he said another benefit unique to school bus driver positions is eligibility for state retirement benefits.
But the pull to work for a familiar school district is strong; Richmond resident Keisha Pleasants accepted a position driving a bus for Charlottesville City Schools because of her strong connection to the city and community. Pleasance grew up in Charlottesville and graduated from Charlottesville High School in 1996. While she owns a house in Richmond, she still has a lot of family in Charlottesville.
“What I want to do is try to help somebody's child get to school,” Pleasants said. “I'm choosing to come down here and help my community out.”