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More counties turn to ARPA funds for school bus drivers

Officials in two more metropolitan counties, Baltimore and Howard, have announced they will dip into federal American Recovery Plan Act funds to try to ease their school bus driver shortages.

Baltimore County officials announced Tuesday they will use the money to pay for raises, retention bonuses and other steps they hope will help keep and attract drivers.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski said in a morning news conference the county government will cover pre-employment costs that bus drivers have borne previously. That includes paying for background checks, fingerprinting, physical exams, drug testing and sleep apnea tests for some, all of which could cost as much as $1,500 each.

“These barriers combined with the general shortage of individuals with CDL licenses have undermined our efforts to get more drivers in the buses and more children to the classroom safely,” he said.

In addition, Olszewski said the county has created an expanded list of medical providers eligible to provide pre-employment physicals in hopes of reducing a backlog of applicants waiting a long time for their physicals.

“It's been made clear that it's incumbent on us to find solutions on two fronts, both eliminating pre-employment barriers and increasing wages,” he said.

School Superintendent Darryl Williams said the school system will pay $250 sign on and $1,000 retention bonuses and on-time rewards for all employees who are AFSCME members. He also said the school system would pay shift differential for school bus drivers who have taken on additional routes.

“It is our hope that the steps we're taking today as a system will help us provide greater support and recognition of our employees and build a stronger team BCPS,” he said.

In the afternoon, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball announced in a video on the county’s Facebook page that he was committing $2 million in ARPA money for signing and retention bonuses to keep existing bus drivers and attendants and to attract new ones.

“Our bus drivers should be fairly compensated for their important work that is provided to our children,” he said. “Our school system has savings from reduced services that could also be applied to addressing the current vacancy issues while rewarding those who have continued to serve in these challenging circumstances.” 

The announcements come just days after Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman said he would dip into ARPA money to pay signing and retention bonuses to school bus drivers in hopes of easing the shortage in his county.

Olszewski acknowledged the problem is not a local one, but one brought on by the pandemic that “impacts communities across the country.”

Bus companies that contract with school systems throughout the country were forced to furlough or lay off drivers en masse last year as those school systems went to remote learning. Those drivers found other jobs and it’s been difficult to get them back.

A joint survey by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), and the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) published last August found that more than half the school systems that responded called the shortage “severe” or “desperate.” Three quarters of those that responded said the shortage was “getting worse.”

Baltimore County has just over 700 drivers to cover more than 800 routes carrying 85,000 students. Ball said Howard County came up short 100 drivers last week, forcing drivers to complete multiple routes at non traditional times.

“The impacts have been experienced deeper into our community, as families have been forced to send their children to school earlier and have them arrive back home later,” he said.

Olszewski said he hopes the moves will end the shortage.

“We believe together that the work on the pre-employment front as well as the incentive and pay front will help us hire the drivers we need to get our students to schools and keep the talented and dedicated drivers we currently have.”

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.