The Killeen Independent School District is facing a potential crisis.
While district officials have been focused on the challenges of educating children and keeping them safe in the face of the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve also been dealing with a critical shortage of school bus drivers.
But the district doesn’t appear to be acknowledging the magnitude of the problem.
Last week the Herald spoke to several veteran bus drivers, and they all said the district was experiencing a shortage of at least 100 drivers.
District officials downplayed that number, first responding that the district had only vacant 25 routes it was working to fill.
After the Herald went to print with the drivers’ allegations of a triple-digit shortfall, the district responded that it was 71 bus drivers short. However, because of the large percentage of virtual learners in the current school year, the district has been able to consolidate routes and make things work — for now.
But with the coronavirus pandemic on the wane, and persistent talk that the district will eliminate its virtual-learning option in the fall, a shortage of 70 or more bus drivers could seriously disrupt KISD’s transportation plans.
Certainly, a district as large as Killeen ISD faces a challenge in keeping more than 300 bus driver positions filled, especially in a transient community, and with some nearby districts offering better wages.
And granted, the current driver shortage is nothing new.
In March 2019, then-district spokesman Terry Abbott said KISD had 55.25 full-time equivalent bus driver vacancies, including six substitute driver vacancies, out of 311 driver allocations.
As of February 2020, the district reported that it was about 50 drivers short of the 360 authorized driver and related positions in its transportation department.
But trying to find out exactly where the district stands right now has proved to be an exercise in frustration.
The Herald last week sent KISD a few simple questions on staffing, such as how many drivers have been hired during current school year, how many drivers quit during that time and how many filled bus driver positions the district currently has.
The district’s public information officer replied that the Herald would need to file a formal public information request to get the information, and the district’s human resources department wouldn’t be able to respond to the questions until at least midweek.
This response either reflects an organization with poor record-keeping, too much red tape or a general disregard for media inquiries.
A district with more than 5,000 employees should have sophisticated HR data processing capabilities, and simple staffing questions should require no more than a 24-hour turnaround. Of course, that would assume that the media inquiry is considered a priority — and apparently that isn’t the case in this instance.
The fact that the district suddenly required a public information request the day after the Herald published the article citing allegations by several disgruntled drivers seems like more than a coincidence.
But forcing the newspaper to jump through hoops to get information is not the biggest problem here.
Current and former district drivers continue to come forward to the Herald, describing difficult working conditions, unsympathetic and unresponsive supervisors, and a disciplinary process that is heavy on write-ups and short on discussion.
Certainly, low pay is a problem, and many drivers pointed to the $14.26 starting hourly pay as inadequate, but to be fair, the rate is higher than most surrounding school districts offer.
Still, given the demands of the job, it could be argued that drivers deserve more.
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.
However, most drivers say pay isn’t their biggest concern. Rather, it’s morale and working conditions.
The current bus driver shortage has caused the district to press mechanics, office personnel and other transportation department workers into service as drivers, causing a backlog of vehicle maintenance, clerical work and other functions as a result.
No doubt, the district is facing a major challenge in ensuring that its students are transported safely to and from their respective campuses with the resources available. That the district has done so to this point with a minimum of disruption is commendable, but the student riders shouldn’t be the only consideration in this equation.
Well-trained, dependable bus drivers are just as essential to the education process as teachers, coaches and support staff.
These drivers put their health in danger on a daily basis, as they are tasked with transporting dozens of students — many of whom are not wearing face masks — in the midst of a dangerous pandemic.
But most bus drivers the Herald spoke to said they like doing the job because of the kids. Indeed, the best drivers truly care about their students and how they’re doing — not just getting them from Point A to Point B.
It’s past time the school district place more value in their drivers — and act accordingly.
Drivers should always get a chance to review bus camera footage whenever a disputed incident occurs, whether that involves a disturbance, a question of where a student was dropped off, or an exchange between the driver and a student.
All KISD buses are equipped with cameras, and district supervisors should always review a camera recording when considering disciplinary action.
Also, drivers who face potential disciplinary action deserve to tell their side in front of a review board, which should be established as part of the district’s recent expansion of due process for employees.
In addition, drivers deserve assurances that their concerns will be heard, whether they involve disruptive students, maintenance issues or health and safety concerns.
In short, drivers are valuable assets to the district and should be treated as such.
No doubt, every school district has its share of challenges and concerns when it comes to their transportation departments, but it’s time for our local district to stop trying to minimize or gloss over the issues it faces.
The district has an apparent pay problem. It has a morale problem. And those problems are bound to get worse before they get better — unless the district makes solving them a priority.
Right now, nearly a third of the district’s 44,000 students are attending school virtually, rather than on campus.
As the virus fades this summer and state funding for virtual learning dries up, the number of buses and bus drivers that will be needed will increase dramatically.
When that time comes, the district can ill afford to have a triple-digit shortage in qualified personnel.
The time to remedy the problem is now — and simply engaging in a recruiting blitz won’t be enough.
The district should conduct a town hall meeting for transportation department workers, administrators and parents.
Participants should feel free to air their grievances — politely and without fear of retribution — with the purpose of finding realistic, workable solutions to the problems in place.
Also, the district should immediately consider a significant hourly raise for all drivers, while authorizing a study on how to make the district’s pay more competitive with other large school districts in the area.
Finally, the district should authorize creation of a grievance committee — composed of administrators, former transportation workers and parent representatives — to hear and arbitrate issues as they arise.
Over the past decade, the district has invested considerable amounts of planning and funding to ensure students have the best possible facilities in which to learn.
Now it’s time for a similar investment in the men and women who drive them there.