A DeKalb County school bus sits in traffic at Memorial Drive and Hairston Road. Some drivers say it’s common for DeKalb buses to run with far too many students on board. The school district has added some routes and changed others, and is seeking about 30 more drivers, the Superintendent Steve Green says. KENT D. JOHNSON /KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: Kent D. Johnson
Photo: Kent D. Johnson

Too-full school buses worry DeKalb drivers, parents

A school bus driver shortage in DeKalb County means some cover multiple routes with kids sitting four to a seat or standing in the aisles, something other school districts would not allow because of safety concerns.

DeKalb administrators are trying to fix the problem, changing and adding routes while continuing to look for new drivers. Superintendent Steve Green said 118 have been hired since June, though 69 resigned in the same time period. The district employs about 847 drivers for 817 routes, and is seeking an additional 30 or so drivers.

Drivers’s complaints of pay and work conditions including the crowding, raised at a school board meeting this week, caught Green, DeKalb’s new superintendent, by surprise.

“This was the first I’d heard” of driver complaints, he said Tuesday morning. “I as a superintendent value our bus drivers, who take good care of our students. To react this way was inappropriate.”

Finding enough school bus drivers is a typical problem for metro Atlanta school districts. Clayton County, for example, started the year with a shortage that pushed buses to capacity, and some drivers handled multiple routes. But no students were made to stand, said Jada Dawkins, school district spokeswoman. Clayton is currently about 15 drivers short.

Rick Grisham, Cobb County Schools director of transportation, said the district has struggled to find a full complement of drivers and is about 40 short of a full staff of 935, though the district already has trained 40 new drivers this year. Still, Cobb will not overcrowd buses, he said. Some students will be left behind for a second run.

“We won’t run (buses) with kids standing up,” he said.

Green said about 32 back-up drivers are employed to cover shortfalls while recruitment continues.

But Cathy Douglas, president of the Bus Advisory Council, an advocacy group for school bus drivers, said there’s no such thing as a back-up driver in DeKalb. Classified as one herself, she drives a route every day.

Douglas said she believed the district is down about 70 bus drivers and does not have the buses needed to handle every route.

“Children are late every day because of no drivers,” she said. “On some buses, there are as many as 80 students on 64-passenger buses. If a bus breaks down, we’re in trouble.”

State law allows buses to carry up to 120 percent capacity, meaning that a 64-passenger bus can run with 77 students on board.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends no students be in the aisle while buses are traveling.

Meghan Frick, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education, said while a limit on school buses is set at 120 percent of their capacity, that is not an endorsement of having students standing.

“We emphasize to districts that, if an unexpected overload results in having students standing, they need to make resolution a top priority and quickly identify and implement a solution that gets all students sitting,” Frick said in an email.

Green said monitoring bus capacity has resulted in additional routes and changes to current routes. “The district has been monitoring bus capacity since the first week of school with monthly student counts to identify issues before they develop into serious problems,” Green said. “Previously, student counts were done only twice a year. The health and safety of our students is our top priority.”

DeKalb bus drivers say it’s not unusual to fill their buses with students from multiple routes, struggling to fit dozens more on board than there are seats to hold them.

Drivers also complain of being unable to break up students’ fights, parents coming on buses and picking fights, GPS devices often not working, favoritism in additional assignments such as field trips, outdated buses, and the overcrowding. Relatively low pay means many leave after finding a better job. Their frustration surfaced at a Monday school board meeting when drivers had gathered to protest a proposed pay raise that did not include them.

“We’re among the lowest-paid in the district, yet we deliver the most precious cargo of all,” one driver said during the meeting.

With a starting salary of $15.55 an hour, Green said bus drivers are paid more than paraprofessionals who work in classrooms. In addition to the 2 percent raise bus drivers received in the current budget, they are on course to receive another 2 percent next year.

LaSonya Carter got on a bus to see the chaos for herself after her daughter came home complaining of cramped conditions and other problems caused by overcrowding.

The school bus, equipped to hold 80 passengers, was standing-room-only with students as young as kindergarten age. Some sat four to a bench, or on the laps of other students.

“I looked down the aisle and all I could see was kid after kid after kid,” said Carter, of Lithonia, whose daughter rides the bus to Stoneview Elementary School. “My heart dropped when they pulled away from the curb. What if the driver had to stamp the brake fast? I don’t want (district officials) to finally address this after a bus flips or someone is hurt.”

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