While the state of Delaware provides most of the money for school buses, it does not designate pay or benefit packages for drivers.
That’s left up to the transportation company that hires the drivers and means the Appoquinimink, Christina and VoTech schools hit by a driver strike Thursday cannot step in to solve the disagreement between the drivers and First Student Transportation of Ohio.
“We really don’t have any control in this situation,” said Matt Burrows, superintendent of education for the Appoquinimink School District.
The strike occurred as 60 members of Local Teamsters 326 negotiated with First Student Transportation of Ohio for better pay and health care plan, as well as a pension plan in addition to a 401K plan. The company and the drivers had reached agreement on pay, but not on healthcare or a pension when the drivers voted 27-23 to strike.
The decision led the VoTech schools to turn to virtual classes. Appo had buses running three routes instead of two, meaning some students had to get to schools early and stay much later than normal so everybody could be in class. Delcastle and Hodgson students in Christina were expected to follow their normal schedule whether they could get to school on their own or had to work from home.
The strike comes as Delaware schools already are having trouble finding enough bus drivers, partly because the current drivers are aging and retiring and no one is stepping up to take their place.
The Department of Education has asked for bus driver compensation to be raised, and a state Senate Democratic spokesman said he expects the legislature to push for it.
Districts handle busing differently, Burrow said. Some own their buses and others contract with companies to handle transportation. Some downstate schools contract with individuals who drive buses to supplement their income, Burrows said.
“The state provides a set hourly driver rate for all contracts, which represents the funding that the state will cover,” according to the Delaware Department of Education. “Contractors, as independendent employers, make decisions around salaries for their privately employed staff.”
That means the state and districts don’t know what drivers for contractors are paid.
However, job search site ZipRecruiter said school bus drivers are paid from $13 to $19 an hour, according to its survey. In comparison, Salary.com said the average city bus driver in Wilmington is $44,101 as of Nov. 29, 2021, but the range falls between $38,601 and $49,401.
The state provides funding for buses through the state budget.
Basically, Burrows said, the state bases pay for contracts — which cover equipment, maintenance and driver pay — on the mileage of a route. The state pays 90% of the cost of a route while the district picks up the other 10%.
Charter schools are funded as a percentage of the prior year expenditure amount for the vocational district in the county in which the charter is located.
Burrows said he didn’t know how much the largest or smallest routes pay in Appoquinimink and would have to consult a financial officer to find out.
There are four school bus contractors in Delaware, he said.
Routes are not bid on in a traditional sense of several companies making offers and the district accepting the lower cost, Burrows said.
The district offers a route to a company and that company accepts the route or not.
The only exception to that is when schools need buses for afterschool activities such as sports or band trips. Then the companies may be asked to bid on the trips.
Burrows is now sitting on a state committee looking at the issue of bus drivers.
“We don’t have a lot of contractors in this state,” he said. Many of the drivers are nearing retirement age and there’s no succession plans in place, he said.
Districts have been having a hard time finding new drivers.
Appo has been offering a $4,200 annual bonus to new drivers, and each time one person accepts a job, it seems like two others leave, said Lillian Miles, spokeswoman for the Appo system.
Burrow’s group wants to make the system more profitable for bus drivers and contractors, he said.
The Delaware Department of Education has requested additional funding for fiscal year 2023, which starts July 1, to increase driver pay up to $20 per hour, the department said in a statement Thursday.
“That request is currently under consideration with the Office of Management and Budget,” the department said.
Democratic leadership jumped into the strike story Thursday on the drivers’ side, saying drivers deserved fair working conditions, affordable health care and the knowledge they will be able to pay their bills after retirement.
Scott Goss, communications director for the Senate Democrats, said he expected the formula used to determine the funding provided to districts for bus contracts would be examined as a part of the budget process to specifically help address the statewide bus driver shortage.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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