Amid school bus driver shortage, state lawmakers pitch idea that could make it worse

ORLANDO, Fla. — Since the beginning of the school year, thousands of school buses across Florida have remained in park as the state deals with a historic bus driver shortage.

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School district lobbyists say approximately 17.5% -- or close to one in five – bus driver positions remain vacant more than halfway through the first semester. The 1,925 known positions account for thousands of routes per day.

READ: ‘I don’t see an end to it’: Years of low pay leading to shortage of school bus drivers in Florida

To fill the gap, districts have resorted to an increasing array of extreme measures, from packing kids on the floor to doubling up on routes and even considering hiring firefighters to transport kids in the bright yellow vehicles.

“We’ve been dealing with shortages for a while and they continue to get worse,” Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar said. “Part of it has to do with the lack of funding in our schools.”

Florida’s government pays for 45% of school transportation costs, which cover every child that lives outside of a two-mile radius to their classroom.

The remainder, approximately $500 million, is covered by each district, where vast majorities of funds already go to cover staff salaries. Since districts cannot raise taxes at will, they’re left with little room to raise driver salaries on their own.

Most Florida school bus drivers make less than $15 per hour, all while working split shifts that amount to less than 40 hours per week, nine months per year. Most potential recruits view the salary and the responsibility of keeping dozens of children per trip safe as a nonstarter.

“That means that districts can’t pay bus drivers the salaries they need to in order to get them to drive buses,” Spar summed up.

READ: Osceola County schools seeking solutions to bus driver shortage

Despite the emergency, Florida’s government has been unwilling to deal with the problem. A forthcoming special session called by Gov. Ron DeSantis will focus in part on schools, but more political topics: vaccine and masking mandates. The legislature could decide to add driver shortages to the agenda at any time.

However, districts warn that a proposal introduced in the Senate this week could make the driver shortages much worse. The bill would reduce the maximum distance children could be forced to walk to school from two miles to one.

Supporters said it would get close to 200,000 kids, many lower-income, off dangerous sidewalks and out of bad weather in the state’s cities and towns. Some referred to the bill as long overdue.

School district representatives hesitated. They didn’t debate the safety benefit of expanding bus use. Instead, they pointed to the legislature’s own estimate that the expansion would cost $185 million -- and that the state government was not offering to pay for it.

“There is a critical shortage of bus drivers right now and this would require hiring more,” one lobbyist for the districts noted. “There’s a just a really large funding issue that comes with this bill.”

Lawmakers responded to that by saying funding was not under the control of their committee. They said they believed it would be a good idea to discuss additional money for school transportation budgets as their proposal wound its way through the process to keep costs down for districts.

READ: No delays reported after rumored school bus driver ‘sickout’ in Seminole County

That wasn’t good enough for educators and their backers.

“They need to help solve this problem,” Spar insisted. “Florida ranks 43rd in the nation in funding for our public schools, yet we’re one of the wealthiest states in the nation… we need to set our priorities right.”

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