Back-to School 2019: School division sees success in transportation efforts

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 8, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

Increased recruitment, salary boost helps draw drivers to serve routes

PRINCE GEORGE –  Soon enough, the roads of Prince George County will once again be dotted with yellow school buses as classes are set to resume across the county and region on September 3. Even though the buses will be more visible over the coming days as school returns to session, the work of Prince George County Public Schools and its transportation department has been consistent since classes ended back in June as they, along with many other departments within PGCPS, review the previous year in an effort to prepare for what’s ahead. 

For the school division, which sees buses traversing over 280 square miles within the county’s borders, it was a matter of finding qualified drivers to fill outstanding openings. Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, PGCPS and the school board worked to address the shortfall and in an interview, Prince George County Schools Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff reflected on that challenge and said their efforts to address it are bearing fruit for the school system and its users.

“One of the challenges that we experiences early on in the  year was transportation,” she detailed. “So, the efforts that were made to improve the number of bus drivers that we have for our students have been highly successful over the course of the year.”

Some of those efforts included boosting the pay of the school division’s bus drivers, offering evening training sessions for prospective applicants to help them prepare for their commercial driver’s license test, a requirement for all bus drivers to possess, and the implementation of a bonus for perfect attendance for drivers who are already part of the school system and new hires.

During the fall of last year, Prince George County Public Schools ramped up their recruitment efforts as they worked to address their driver shortfall, including parking buses with signage inviting people to apply for openings in high visibility locations, like Courthouse Road in front of Walton Elementary School and outside of the school division’s offices, both high-traffic areas in the county.  

In December, the school division’s transportation coordinator Clarence Thweatt said three new drivers had been brought on-board, promoted three other drivers to full-time status, recruited over a dozen potential drivers who possess a CDL and were in the process of training other drivers who had yet to get their CDL. That push resulted in all but five of PGCPS’ over 120 routes being served by contracted employees, with five others being covered by long-term substitute drivers. 

Thweatt told school board leaders last year once those routes being served by the substitutes can be filled, the goal would be to hire between 15 and 20 of those training drivers to help relieve some of the school division’s more crowded buses with operations director Ron Rhodes explaining there were roughly nine routes that require buses to double back and pick up more children after their first run, noting, ideally, those should be divided.

“We actually need to get those children in school in a more timely fashion,” Rhodes remarked. 

Fast forward to this summer and, according to Pennycuff, the school division only had one opening at the time of The Prince George Journal’s interview with the superintendent for a bus driver but she stressed the school division is always open to additional applicants.

“We are always glad to have additional substitute bus drivers,” she remarked, noting a recent job fair sought out additional substitute drivers, along with teachers, para-educators, food service employees, custodians, and others. 

During the last school year, in an effort to bolster their recruitment efforts, the school division parked school buses with signs encouraging people to apply for openings in their transportation department. (Michael Campbell)

When reflecting on the efforts taken to address what had been a recurring challenge for the school division, Pennycuff explained the energy to fix the issue came from a place of understanding the impact the bus driver shortage had on parents living in the county and their children.

“This was a great difficulty to our families to not have transportation they could count on because we didn’t have enough drivers,” she remarked. “I think we tried every route we could before we needed to increase salaries but, when we made the decision that we needed to do that, we approached it from a marketing standpoint as a project-based learning type of experience. Some of our high school students helped design the recruitment pieces for the bus drivers and it became a larger project for the school division.”

She added other staff who carried licenses to drive buses would also take on routes to try and address the wait and commute time for students.

“We embraced that we would need to get our own teachers, custodians, and cafeteria staff to drive, if they could,” Pennycuff continued. “Anybody in the school division who was employed and wanted to go through the process and it didn’t interfere with their first, or primary employment was able to take on a route and we had several people do that to help us out during that time so it really gave us an opportunity to get everyone in the school division actively involved in how we were going to own and solve the problem.”

According to Pennycuff, the response from parents to the school division’s efforts has been positive. 

“Parents have been very appreciative,” she said. “Some of them have responded by applying to assist us. We are thankful that they, as parents, were willing to step up and take on a role that they might not have considered in the past to help, not only their children but also other children to get to and from school.”

As of this report, a check of the school division’s employment opportunities portal shows no listings for bus drivers. According to their website, substitute drivers, which Pennycuff said they are always looking for, must possess a valid driver’s license, be dependable, have a neat appearance, and be able to work with fellow co-workers, students, parents and administration, with the drivers making a salary of $17.29 per hour.

To review this and other job opportunities, visit their website at https://pgs.k12.va.us/employment_opportunities.

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