A Killeen school district bus driver took his message to the public last week: Pay bus drivers a living wage.

At two school board candidate forums — one hosted by the Killeen Daily Herald — Johnnie Williams, a seven-year KISD driver, silently held up a sign listing the drivers’ responsibilities and asking for more pay.

Currently, the district pays drivers $13.78 an hour — well above minimum wage. If calculated over a 40-hour work week, that would equate to $551 a week, or just over $28,660 annually.

However, most drivers are scheduled to work a 30-hour week, according to district spokesman Terry Abbott. The district also pays drivers on a pro-rated scale — something Williams wants to see eliminated.

Whether the district’s current pay rate constitutes a living wage is debatable, but it may be a factor in the Killeen Independent School District’s ongoing bus driver shortage.

On Friday, Abbott said the district has a total of 55.25 full-time equivalent bus driver vacancies, including six substitute driver vacancies, out of 311 driver allocations.

Abbott said earlier this year that the district continues to hire new drivers, but others leave the district, for a variety of reasons.

As a result of the driver shortage, the district has taken several steps to provide service for its 234 bus routes, including reassigning some transportation staffers to driving duty, and adjusting route coverage so that some buses can accommodate students attending schools with staggered start and release times.

Last month, the district offered a seminar on how to obtain a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, with emphasis on how the district provides free CDL for individuals employed as a KISD bus driver, as well as paid training.

The seminar also highlighted the district’s other incentives, such as $1,000 bonuses for new drivers, annual incentives and extra pay for driving on school trips and driving on holidays.

In addition, the district has raised the starting pay by $2 an hour since the 2014-2015 school year, and the district offers an extra $2.99 per hour if drivers complete the district’s safe driver incentive program.

Certainly, it sounds as if the district is making a concerted effort to address the problem, but there may be more to the situation than money.

One factor that must not be overlooked is the responsibility involved in being a bus driver.

Drivers are essentially responsible for the lives of dozens of students during the time they are in the drivers’ care. In addition to safely driving and maneuvering a large, cumbersome vehicle, they must be keep a watchful eye on the actions of other motorists, while simultaneously monitoring the behavior of their young passengers.

If these obligations aren’t enough, full-time drivers must report to work before dawn, finish their morning routes and split up their days until it’s time to return for the after-school pickups. And that doesn’t include the stress of driving on rain-slicked or icy roadways.

As Abbott pointed out, the problem of a bus driver shortage isn’t unique to the Killeen school district. It’s a challenge districts are facing nationwide.

It’s entirely possible that a growing number of would-be employees simply don’t want to shoulder the responsibility of transporting students, or sign on for the work involved in getting their CDL. It’s also possible that the segmented work schedule involved in driving a school bus further limits the number of applicants.

Given all that, though, higher pay would likely help to balance the equation.

Following the Herald school board forum on March 18, Place 5 trustee Brett Williams, who is unopposed for his seat in the May 4 election, said he thought raising drivers’ pay to $17 an hour might be an answer.

Indeed, that would raise drivers’ pay to $680 if they could work a 40-hour week; that’s $35,360 annually. That would certainly seem to address the living-wage question. And given the responsibility drivers bear in their daily work, such an increase doesn’t seem unreasonable.

A raise of $3.22 an hour would cost the district a maximum of about $2 million annually — based on a full contingent of 311 full-time drivers, working 40 hours a week, so the money would have to be found somewhere.

Much has been made of the district’s teachers receiving a 2 percent raise last year — especially in the wake of the superintendent’s 15.8 percent, $42,000 salary increase the board approved in February.

But in the midst of all the talk about teacher pay, the district’s support personnel seem to have been overlooked.

No doubt, the quality of our students’ education depends heavily on the classroom professionals who guide them through increasingly challenging curricula and testing materials. And the competitive $47,000 salary the district pays starting teachers serves as recognition of this fact.

However, the safe transportation of many of these students is in the hands of our district’s bus drivers, and it’s in the district’s best interests to recruit and retain the best candidates possible to carry out this important task. Raising drivers’ pay would certainly be a step in that direction.

Still, money can’t be the only variable here.

In Copperas Cove ISD, the pay is similar — $13.65 an hour — yet the district has a shortfall of only two drivers, with 68 employed by the district.

Granted, driving a school bus isn’t for everybody.

There’s a significant portion of would-be applicants who wouldn’t take on the task for $20 an hour — and that is about the pay that would be offered some drivers if the base pay rate were raised to $17 and the district also kept its safe-driving program incentive.

Moreover, not everyone has the personal discipline or temperament to be a good bus driver. It takes a special combination of attributes — aptitude for driving a large vehicle, punctuality, situational awareness, commitment to the job and an affinity for children — to be the kind of driver who would be an asset to the district, its students and its parents.

Knowing this, it’s incumbent upon the district to retain the quality drivers it has and to make it a priority to recruit and hire more like them.

KISD officials are to be commended for taking the issue seriously, and acting accordingly to address the problem.

The district should take the concerns of its current drivers seriously, as well.

The safe and efficient transportation of our students is riding on it.

dmiller@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7543

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