Driver pay is $11.38 an hour for six or seven hours a day, plus benefits for full-time drivers. Photo by David Grace.
KINGSPORT — Faced with a shortage of school bus drivers, Kingsport City Schools is using a school bus with a hanging sign to advertise.
Driver pay is $11.38 an hour for six or seven hours a day, plus benefits for full-time drivers, and the current draft school budget includes a 1.5 percent pay increase starting halfway through the 2013-14 school year.
So far, the bus and sign in the Dobyns-Bennett High School parking lot facing Fort Henry Drive already has drawn one potential full-time school bus driver candidate. It has been there about a week and will stay until Fun Fest, at which point it is to be moved to another visible location around town, according to KCS Transportation Director Ken Barnes.
Barnes said he has three vacant full-time positions open — two because of retirements — and will have two more, for a total of five, if two additional positions for two new bus routes in recently annexed areas remain in the Board of Education’s tentative 2013-14 school budget if the Board of Mayor and Aldermen finalize it as is.
Barnes also said he could use another five substitute drivers to join five current substitutes, more if any of the subs get a full-time position.
During the school year, when too many drivers are out and substitutes are not available, Barnes said he usually has to shut down one to three routes and put those students on another bus.
The students still get to school safely, albeit sometimes a little late.
“We do it every week, unfortunately,” Barnes said.
In another instance, he said, the city temporarily used a private contractor, which normally serves the Sullivan County school system, to run one of the elementary bus routes.
The full-time drivers, in addition to the pay, receive health insurance, dental insurance, two personal days a year and other benefits of full-time school employees.
The substitute drivers are part time and receive only pay.
But all drivers mirror the school year schedule, which means that they get summers off, as well as fall break, winter break, spring break and other days off or holidays on the school calendar.
The 2012-13 budget had 35 full-time drivers, while the tentative 2013-14 budget has 37 positions.
“A lot of self-employed people don’t have benefits, and this is a good way to get benefits,” Barnes said Friday.
Among the current drivers are single parents, a pastor and farmers. The age range is 22 to 75. When he started overseeing the bus system, Barnes said more women than men drove buses, but now he said slightly more men drive than women.
Living inside the city limits is not a requirement. He said the longest commute belongs to a driver from Abingdon.
The hours generally are 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. for regular bus drivers. Special education bus drivers work an extra hour, generally split evenly between the morning and afternoon shifts.
Substitutes make the same pay but can work as much or little as they want. The caveat is they don’t receive benefits.
“Substitutes basically tell me when they are available,” Barnes said., For instance, he said only working an occasional morning or afternoon is doable. On the other end of the spectrum, so is working almost full time, which he said three subs had been doing the just-ended school year.
Others can be used for afternoon middle school sports trips or daytime field trips.
For those with a valid drivers license, Barnes said to drive a school bus they must get a Class B commercial drivers license or CDL. After applying for a bus driving position through the school system’s online human resource system, Barnes said he gives potential employees a CDL manual to study and the person gets a certificate of eligibility from the school system to take four “written” tests — now a touch-screen computerized test — on air brakes, passenger certification, S or school bus certification and CDL, usually either at the Blountville or Boones Creek Department of Motor Vehicle offices.
After passing those, he said the driving test is administered, usually in Mountain City but sometimes at Boones Creek.
After passing the driving test, a fingerprint background check and Department of Transportation physical are all that is left to do.
“It’s not a difficult process,” Barnes said. He said getting a license to drive a school bus can take as little as three weeks, depending on how motivated and active the driving candidate is. And the pay starts after the application is accepted.
“It’s paid training. That may not happen other places,” Barnes said.
All buses in the city’s fleet, maintained and parked when not in use at the fleet maintenance lot off Industry Drive, have automatic transmissions, and all have diesel motors except for one gas bus.
He said the system will work with drivers in training to be sure they are up to par and comfortable with driving buses before they hit the road.
“We do our best to make sure they’re totally comfortable before we send them out with kids,” Barnes said.
To apply, go to the system’s website, www.k12k.com, or call the central office at (423) 378-2100 for questions, Barnes said.