Bus drivers in the Fulton County School System will be among the highest paid in the metro area as the district tries to attract new drivers and slow the tide of those leaving for higher paying jobs.
The $3 bump in pay to $20 an hour puts Fulton at the top rung of metro area drivers — behind only Buford School System which pays $21.19 an hour. The raise goes into effect immediately and will cost Fulton Schools about $1.2 million a year added to the current $54 million transportation budget.
The increase in pay comes at a critical time for the Transportation Department which has struggled this year to send out its full fleet of 753 buses each day.
“We are not meeting Fulton County Schools standards for on-time delivery,” said Sam Ham, director of Transportation for the district. “There are 64 daily routes without a full-time driver.”
The 64 routes is equal to the entire fleet that serves the Chattahoochee and Northview high school clusters combined. Systemwide, Fulton transports 78,000 students each day.
Ham noted transportation supervisors are using every available resource to cover open routes, including having drivers serve multiple, additional bus routes which impacts on-time delivery.
Bus driver shortages have been a growing concern for Fulton Schools and districts across the country for the past few years as the economy booms and unemployment rates fall to historic lows.
Options abound for drivers with a Commercial Drivers License not only in other school districts, but for Amazon, UPS, FedEx and other delivery services looking to fill their fleet of delivery trucks.
“Between retirements and normal attrition we have replaced over 75 drivers from the last quarter of the 2018-2019 school year till the open of the 2019-2020 school year in August,” Ham said.
This year the number of drivers declined in the days leading up to the opening of school and into the school year — a new anomaly — creating the existing shortage.
Fulton Schools has managed past shortages by keeping a “bench” of drivers to fill in as needed. This year the bench was empty, requiring new tactics and aggressive marketing for new drivers.
The previous $17 an hour for bus drivers limited the ability of Fulton Schools to be competitive, noted Ron Wade, chief talent officer for the district.
“We are at a particular point right now just outside critical shortage [and] we are having trouble attracting and retaining the experienced CDL driver who is ‘seat ready,’” Wade said. “That individual is currently working for other districts or in the private sector.”
Hamm said the school board action on Oct. 10 to raise the pay has already generated 30 applications in the first week and he expects more to follow. He said the gap could start to be filled within weeks.
“If we have a qualified candidate that already possesses a CDL, that person will be ready in as little as 7 to 10 days to drive a FCS bus,” Hamm said. “[Otherwise] it takes about six weeks to hire and train a person without a CDL to become a bus driver. We are hiring both types of drivers.”
The mid-year adjustment to the budget was important, noted Fulton School Board President Linda Bryant.
“We need to compete with surrounding areas…and not have buses that don’t have drivers,” Bryant said. “At this point I think we all came to the conclusion this is something we have to do … we cannot have children left [without a bus] because we don’t have drivers.”