Pool of school bus drivers shrinks over low pay, education

Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- School buses park outside of Comeaux High School Wednesday afternoon to take students home in Lafayette. Transportation director says pool of substitute drivers is shrinking because of educational requirements.
Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- School buses park outside of Comeaux High School Wednesday afternoon to take students home in Lafayette. Transportation director says pool of substitute drivers is shrinking because of educational requirements.

Lafayette Parish School System Transportation Director Bill Samec recently requested that the School Board relax its educational requirements so he could find more substitute bus drivers by the start of the school year.

A suspension of the job’s requirement of a high school diploma or GED diploma for at least six months could help attract applicants, Samec said.

The district advertised the part-time jobs in March, but the search only yielded a handful of applicants — too few to help fill in for the 290 full-time drivers employed by the district, Samec said.

The district maintains a substitute pool of 30 drivers, and typically, Samec said, he taps the substitutes for full-time driver positions as they become available.

For the upcoming school year, 18 substitutes will move into vacated, full-time positions, and it hasn’t been easy to find replacements for the subs, he said.

”I really need to at least cover that number. I would have hoped to have gotten even more and to have substitutes on standby,” Samec said.

Drivers must have or obtain a commercial driver’s license with passenger and school bus endorsements. Those applicants in need of a commercial driver’s license will be reimbursed for their training, Samec said.

Daily pay starts at $56 with the opportunity to earn up to $86.

Low pay, rather than a lack of education, makes it difficult to recruit and retain drivers, said Linda Matthew, former president of the Louisiana School Bus Operators Association. Matthew retired in January from the Vermilion Parish School System after 34 years behind the wheel of a school bus.

“There is definitely a shortage throughout the state,” Matthew said. “It’s not a question of education. … It’s the pay.”

Matthew said training on topics such as bullying prevention and ethics requires drivers to take time away from their second jobs.

The number of available substitutes typically fluctuates with the economy, particularly the status of the oil and gas industry, Samec said.

“When oil is between $90 and $100 a barrel, we can’t find drivers; if oil is $40 a barrel, we’ve got people knocking on the door,” Samec said.

The substitute shortage is “critical” in the Iberia Parish school system, where there are only 13 substitutes for 129 drivers, said Raymond Noel, Iberia Parish Schools transportation director.

“We spend a lot of time shuffling routes because of the shortage of substitutes,” he said. “It’s an ongoing issue. A couple of years ago, we were down to three or four substitutes.”

In Lafayette, Samec said he fears the district will start the school year without enough people to cover for absent drivers.

“We have about a 10 percent daily absentee rate for bus drivers,” he said. “That’s basically 30 people out about every day. Even with 30 substitutes, I’ve got staff members driving buses.”

Samec won’t be around to see how many substitutes start the new school year. He said he’s submitted his resignation as transportation director effective Aug. 1. Samec retired in 2000 but returned to his job as transportation director in 2007.

The Lafayette Parish School Board may take action on Samec’s proposal at its May 15 meeting.

“There’s a pool out there that just can’t even apply to be a bus driver … and I hope at the next meeting that the School Board sees the light,” Samec said.