Rick Beaulé, president of the Killeen Educators Association, climbed on top of a bench Tuesday night outside Killeen Independent School District headquarters and raised his voice to the dozens, urging them to share their own.
Beaulé talked to several bus drivers who were unhappy KISD dismissed their grievance about a driver shortage, low pay and more.
But Beaulé told the dozens wearing red shirts in solidarity not to consider it a defeat.
“They committed to including us in the process. That’s a big deal. The ultimate goal here is to get that. If our grievance tonight failed, OK,” Beaulé said. “But they want us to take part in the process and talk to all groups that are involved. Last I checked, we’re one of those groups who are definitely involved because we’re all standing here tonight at a board meeting.”
Bus drivers have been demonstrating at candidate forums and board meetings for higher pay in order to retain employees in the midst of a shortage of dozens of drivers.
KISD bus drivers receive a starting rate of $13.78 per hour. Once hired, new drivers will receive a $500 bonus after their first solo drive, said Terry Abbott, KISD’s chief communication officer.
Additionally, the district will reimburse the drivers for any commercial drivers license fees after one year of employment, he said. Drivers will also receive $75 per trip driven plus their salary for the first 50 miles driven, Abbott said.
Currently, KISD says there are 59 bus driver vacancies out of 311 total bus driver positions. The vacancies reached as high as 82 in January.
Tension between district bus drivers and the administration has come to a head as KISD employees seek answers to this shortage. Both parties, however, acknowledge that something must be done.
“Did we win on the actual grievance? No,” Beaulé said to the crowd. “But did we give ourselves the chance to win on a whole bunch of other stuff? You betcha.”
The road ahead
One step KISD has taken is approving a transportation audit in the district, which has just begun.
On Sept. 11, the Board of Trustees approved $78,487 for auditing company Gibson to conduct a transportation review. Initial transportation services interviews with Gibson were conducted from March 18 to 22, according to Abbott.
KISD Board Secretary Susan Jones, charged with coordinating yearly audits for KISD, said in a Monday night candidate forum the audit will seek to improve route management, schedules for when students arrive and depart from class and recruitment and retention of bus drivers.
The audit is expected to be complete before KISD’s fiscal year ends Aug. 31.
KISD officials say compensation and benefits are reviewed annually and compared to neighboring districts. But in order to a balance a yearly budget, typically general pay increases are given to all employees rather than specific groups in order to avoid going into the red.
Related to the shortage, however, Chief Human Resources Officer Steve Cook said a recently implemented incentive program for bus drivers is helping to retain employees. Every nine weeks, drivers pay can increase by $2.99 per hour if they are deemed by supervisors have a clean driving record and exhibit quality service, among other stipulations.
So far, 156 drivers have earned this incentive, according to Abbott.
A statewide issue
Many districts both large and small are experiencing a shortage to some degree, according to Amy Scopac, president of the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation. The association, originally formed in 1972, was formed by a group of school transportation directors from the Gulf Coast area with a desire to network with each other and share knowledge about school transportation.
Hourly pay in bus driving compared to other jobs available to commercial driver’s license holders tend to discourage drivers, according to Scopac. That plays a large role in the national driver shortage, she said.
“Recruiting drivers isn’t always easy. If you happen to have an applicant who already has a CDL they are likely to make a higher wage using their CDL in an industry other than pupil transportation,” Scopac said. “Driving a school bus can be an arduous task.”
The process in obtaining a commercial driver’s license, including a commercial learners permit, can take anywhere from eight to 12 weeks before an employee is fully certified to drive a bus, Scopac said.
In addition to obtaining a commercial driver’s license, drivers must also obtain a Texas Department of Transportation physical and complete a 20-hour school bus driver certification course.
“Once you find yourself suffering from a driver shortage, it’s not a problem you can solve overnight,” Scopac said.
For KISD, several unknowns come into play when determining the future projection for needed bus drivers, such as building locations, future hazard zones and student population growth, according to Abbott.
With a $426 million construction program voters approved in May for new schools and renovations to existing campuses, officials don’t know what effects the bus driver shortage will hold.
“(That) makes it almost impossible to provide an estimate with any level of fidelity,” Abbott said.
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