Since I was 11 years old I have taken the bus to and from school. In elementary school, buses showed up on time to take us to and from field trips. But for middle school, I woke up at 5:45 a.m. to get to the bus stop by 6:30 and be at school by 7:10. It was annoying to do every day, but it did get me to school on time and home before dark.
The first time I experienced the bus shortage myself was in fifth grade. It was the end of the year and all of the fifth graders were going camping to celebrate graduating from elementary school. Still, instead of taking hikes and eating S’mores, we were sitting in the front lobby of George Watts Elementary School. Our bus was over two hours late. Teachers were starting to get worried, and we were all starting to get bored.
With no sign or word that a bus was on its way or even coming at all, someone made a quick call to Lakewood Montessori Middle School, and 30 minutes later an activity bus was outside. Our gym teacher, Justin Lasher, drove us to our campsite.
Bus issues became glaringly apparent when I reached middle school. Though I lived just two miles from my school, Lakewood Middle School in the downtown area of Durham, I had to get up before dawn to get to my bus stop because my bus didn’t just pick up kids from Lakewood, but also students who were going to Shepard Middle School, which is near NCCU.
The morning bus rides were not bad except for waking up so early, but the afternoon rides were crazy. Four buses would come to Lakewood, pick up all of the bus riders and take us to Shepard, where we then all got off and got on a different bus with Shepard kids and, finally, went home.
Though this may have seemed like an equitable solution in theory, in reality, it was not. The buses were so packed that sometimes students would have to sit three to a seat. Most of the kids being shuttled from Lakewood to Shepard were traveling to the other side of Durham and, in the process, passing the neighborhoods they lived in. This “solution” meant we got home an hour to an hour and a half after school ended.
I became so frustrated with this situation that, halfway through my eighth grade year, I opted to ride my bike to school, regardless of the weather. That got me to and from school in less than 20 minutes.
I strongly believe we should use the $18 million grant from MacKenzie Scott to fix our bus situation. As of January 9, DPS has more than a dozen open positions in its transportation department. DPS drivers currently make $18.13 an hour and work 180 days a year, which roughly adds up to $26,100 a year; they also receive benefits for health, dental, and eye care as well as vacation time and sick days. But even though the district increased bus drivers’ pay last year, the issues remain. Many drivers still have to find a second source of income, which wouldn’t have happened if they were paid a livable wage, and paid during school breaks. Bus drivers should get paid on school breaks, just like teachers, because then they might not have to find another job for the times that students are out of school.
Right now, we are seeing the effects of bus drivers not getting enough holiday time off. During the weekend of December 17, DPS adeministrators sent out emails to parents of bus riders explaining that many drivers had already gone on holiday break and that there would be a big bus shortage on December 19 and 20. Although school administrators were apologetic, they did not offer a solution and instead sought volunteers with a bus driver’s license to step up and help.
After addressing driver shortages and wages, the remaining grant money should go to buying more buses so fewer students experience overcrowded buses. One bus costs $100,000, according to a WRAL NEWS article, which means that, with the grant, DPS would have enough money to buy the 10 more buses needed so that drivers don’t have to pick up so many kids, making pickup times later, and also have some extra buses in case of buses break down or aren’t working.
As of December 16, DPS announced that it would issue incentives to bus drivers to encourage better attendance and more employment. Bus drivers will get an extra $150 for a month of perfect attendance; all new drivers hired from now on will get a $1,000 bonus, and any driver hired that already has a bus driver license will receive a $3,000 bonus.
Even though the district has already taken steps to solve this problem, I still believe we should spend the $18 million and do whatever it takes to fix our bus system because it will help every DPS school. The students affected by this most are kids that don’t have any alternative transportation. Students need bus transportation to get to school, and right now, they are missing hours, sometimes days, that should be spent learning.
This op-ed was previously published by Indy Week