‘Best choice I ever made’: DeKalb celebrates school bus drivers, seeks more

Bernando Brown, director of transportation for the DeKalb County School District, hugs a longtime school bus driver during a driver appreciation day in Stone Mountain on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.  (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Bernando Brown, director of transportation for the DeKalb County School District, hugs a longtime school bus driver during a driver appreciation day in Stone Mountain on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.  (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Shirley Bennett has been driving a school bus in DeKalb County since 1978. Back then, she had to check the oil on the bus herself. To open the door for kids, she had to yank a big lever.

Things are a little easier now, she said. But she’s enjoyed every one of her 45 years behind the wheel.

“I never had a moment I didn’t enjoy,” the 74-year-old said last week. As one of DeKalb’s most veteran drivers, she addressed a crowd of transportation employees at an event celebrating their work. “I have nothing to regret.”

Two months into the school year, the DeKalb County School District is still trying to hire about 150 bus drivers, said Erick Hofstetter, the district’s chief operations officer. That number represents 20% of its force for the year. The district reported a similar number of vacancies at this time last year. About two-thirds of the district’s 97,000 students ride the bus.

“Our No. 1 challenge right now is bus drivers,” Hofstetter said at a recent town hall meeting at Druid Hills Middle School. Community members at the meeting asked about the district’s plans to address the shortage in pre-submitted written questions.

DeKalb County school buses in Stone Mountain on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

It’s not an issue unique to DeKalb: State funding for transportation has not kept up with the cost of living. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated an existing decline in the workforce. And competition with the private sector poses a constant problem for school districts.

The state’s third-largest district has employed a number of methods to try to fill the openings. Drivers received close to a $2-per-hour pay raise this year, with starting rates now at $20.55 per hour. Access to retirement benefits, including an employee contribution and match, starts right away. Hiring managers are interviewing walk-in applicants every Tuesday, and will pay for new drivers to get their commercial licenses. New hires are eligible for a $2,500 bonus, and existing drivers are getting retention bonuses. Employees are eligible for a referral bonus.

Bernando Brown, director of transportation for the DeKalb County School District, dances and gets the crowd energized during a driver appreciation day for school bus drivers in Stone Mountain on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.   (Ben Gray / Ben@BenGray.com)

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

For now, the district is trying to cover gaps any way it can. Bus drivers are running multiple routes — meaning they drop one group of students off at school, then go out and get another group. More than a dozen district employees are driving buses in the morning or afternoon, and working their regular job during the day. The district isn’t able to transport kids to after-school activities such as sports practices like it used to do.

The number of vacancies puts atremendous amount of stress” on the district’s existing drivers, Hofstetter said. But they still keep coming back.

“They are very dedicated. Extremely dedicated,” he said. “They want to get the kids home on time.”

Ronnie Johnson, who’s been driving buses in DeKalb since 2011, said he wouldn’t change jobs for the world.

“Being a bus driver became the best choice I ever made,” said the 64-year-old. “We’ve gotta be the examples. People are watching us every day. If they see you smiling and happy, it’s gonna rub off on them.”

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