School bus drivers: This job shouldn’t be a dead end

Legislature hasn’t paid much attention or money to bus drivers
A DeKalb school bus driver says many of his co-workers must still drive school buses at age 70 because they can’t afford to retire at the $300 monthly pension from the state.

A DeKalb school bus driver says many of his co-workers must still drive school buses at age 70 because they can’t afford to retire at the $300 monthly pension from the state.

Kelvin L. Hicks is a school bus driver in DeKalb County. Today, he makes an appeal for state lawmakers to consider the plight of school bus drivers and monitors, who have been overlooked in this year’s pay raises for public school employees.

In two decades of covering education policy at the state level, I have rarely, if ever, heard the challenges of school bus drivers given much review by the General Assembly.

In fact, the state has been shifting more of the cost of transportation, including driver health insurance, to the districts, many of which are still suffering from the recession. This is most evident in rural Georgia where school buses transport kids longer distances.

In my view, the school bus driver is like the lunch lady but in a demolition derby. The drivers have to keep watch on children and serve their needs while negotiating congested highways and crazy motorists.

As senior policy analyst Stephen Owens of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute wrote four days ago:

The Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula only allotted money for 8,827 drivers in FY 2019, but there are closer to 14,700 bus drivers across the state...School districts saddled with health insurance and higher transportation costs once carried by the state are tapping money once used for other school needs. Rising fuel prices and the need for more drivers as enrollment grows also eat at local budgets.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers declined to come up with enough money to replace the state's aging bus fleet. At the beginning of the 2018 school year 3,460 buses in service for at least 15 years belonged to Georgia schools. That represents about one out of every four buses on the road. In fact, 39 school buses on a daily route are 30 years or older, meaning that as many as 2,600 students ride to school each day on a bus that was made before the first website was created.

Older buses are more likely to break down and lack advanced safety features. The state's 2020 budget allocates $20 million in bonds for school bus replacement. This amount equates to just less than 217 buses, or 6.3 percent of the buses 15 years and older.

Georgia lawmakers should reconsider the state's commitment to student transportation. Safe, reliable transportation to and from school ought to be provided to all of Georgia's public school students, regardless of the wealth of their community. The first step to meeting this goal is to renew the state's investment in school buses and the professionals who transport students daily to and from school, field trips and extracurricular activities.

With that background, I am delighted to have the AJC Get Schooled’s first guest column by a local school bus driver.

By Kelvin L. Hicks

There have been many discussions lately regarding pay increases of $3,000 to our Georgia teachers after years of budgeting shortfalls. During the last 16 years, too many school employees saw their paychecks not go as far as the stateimposed more than $9 billion in austerity cuts on education.

While the proposed increase is well-deserved, school bus drivers and bus monitors will not receive this raise. I am a witness to the hardships faced by my fellow drivers as they continue to feel the negative impact of those drastic budget cuts.

Public schools provide bus transportation for more than a million students to school every day in Georgia. In 2018, more than 14,000 bus drivers covered 140 million miles of state roads to deliver students to school in a safe, secure, and timely manner.

In 2011, I began driving school buses after moving to Georgia from Alaska where I drove for the school district during “semi-retirement.” For most of my adult life, my passion and greatest joy have been working with children, watching them grow up so fast before my very eyes. As I have heard many times over, “It takes a village.”

I have been a part of the “village,” transporting so many great young students who are full of life and have the kind of curiosity only children can demonstrate.

My job changed drastically about three years ago after becoming a member of the Driver Monitor Advisory Committee of the Dekalb County School District. As a military veteran, my retirement income is secure. However, I discovered that many of my co-workers must still drive school buses at age 70 because they can’t afford to retire at the $300 monthly pension the state enacted decades ago.

I am 67 and grew up during the civil rights era, so I have a very strong sense of justice. I cannot sit silently knowing that some mothers in Georgia work eight hours a day driving school buses but rely on food stamps to feed their children. Often, bus drivers and bus monitors sit in their cars for hours until it’s time to pick up the students in the afternoon because they cannot afford to travel home during shifts.

In the early 1990s, the state contributed more than half of all student transportation costs for local school districts. During the recession, Georgia stopped paying for bus drivers’ health insurance. In 2018, the state contribution for student transportation fell to only 14 percent.

Now, local school districts and bus drivers bear the financial burden of making up the difference. The small raise that Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed amounts to an additional 30 cents per hour for first-year drivers.

With local school districts in control of strapped budgets, many of us working in support roles are skeptical we will even see that money.

I wish lawmakers could see how the austerity measures put in place during the recession have created:

-Negative, trickle-down effect on bus drivers and monitors

-Tidal wave of hardship to endure from paycheck to paycheck

-Inadequate retirement pension

-Reduced funding for student transportation

Next week, on April 2, school bus drivers and monitors will launch our first Inaugural Bus Driver & Bus Monitor Day for the state of Georgia at the Capital. We could use your support.