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The wheels on the bus: Working around the driver shortage

Anne Arundel County, like most other counties in Maryland, continues to face a school bus driver shortage. But School Superintendent George Arlotto told the county’s General Assembly delegation Tuesday transportation planners have found some workarounds.

Arlotto said the school system remains about 60 bus drivers short of enough to cover all of its routes, but that by combining some routes and doubling up others, they were able to whittle that shortage “down to the high teens or low 20s” on average. He conceded there are times when the pandemic cuts into those numbers.

“As life is, we have bus drivers that are being quarantined on a daily basis,” he said. “We have drivers that are sick and take a day off or take annual leave for their own health and other reasons.”

Arlotto announced a $7.4 million plan earlier this month to stem the shortage by giving drivers and bus attendants a $5 an hour pay raise. He combined that with an effort to use $2.1 million of Anne Arundel’s American Rescue Plan money to offer $2,000 signing bonuses to attract new drivers and attendants and $2,000 retention bonuses for existing drivers and attendants.

The plan must be approved by the county school board as well as the county council because it involves budget changes in the middle of the fiscal year. The board approved it two weeks ago and the council took it up at its meeting Monday.

In his weekly news conference, County Executive Steuart Pittman called the plan “a place to work from” and said he wants to be fiscally responsible.

“But we want to make sure that they can recruit and retain drivers for our kids,” he added.

Pittman said the council probably could vote on the plan next month and have the money out by the end of the year.