Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools will not be able to transport all 25,000 students this fall who depend on the district’s bus system. 

The reason? The district can’t attract enough bus drivers due to growing demand and enhanced benefits offered by other Savannah area commercial transport and logistics companies, officials told The Current.

“We have other transportation companies or industries in our area that are able to attract some of our team members or folks when they offer different incentives for them,” according to Tammy Perkins, Lead Director, Special Education/Training at SCCPSS Transportation Department.

There are currently 217 drivers employed by the district, but the organization needs between 290-300 drivers to accommodate all students in a typical year.

In Chatham County public schools, and school districts across the state, the issue of transportation has been a looming challenge well before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to analysts. Now, in the post-pandemic economic rebound, the strains are showing.

For the last 20 years, the state school budgets have not increased for school transportation in line with rising costs of diesel fuel for buses, healthcare for drivers or the growing numbers of students needing the service, according to Stephen Owens, a senior policy analyst at Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI) 

The cost of diesel fuel, healthcare, the number of students we have, all those things have gone up. In the last 20-odd years, the amount the state gives for student transportation stays relatively the same.

Stephen owens

For example, on any given day in North Georgia, up to 20% of buses may not start due to a lack of servicing. Drivers are unable to turn the heat on in some school buses in the winter for the same reason, he said. In the past, drivers have also complained about not being paid for hours spent between picking students up in the morning and dropping them off in the afternoon.

Perkins says that Savannah-Chatham district has approved a $2 per hour raise to try to attract more bus drivers for the district, but for now  school children, and parents will bear the brunt of the consequences of years of neglect in school budgets for transportation.

Setting priorities

The district is implementing a plan to prioritize students in three tiers, an attempt to accommodate those who need transportation the most to make the best of an unideal situation, officials said.

First priority will be given to students with disabilities who are on formal Individualized Education Program (IEP) and 504 plans. McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act students, or unhoused students receiving federal assistance, will also be part of the first priority tier. Perkins says she is confident that there will be enough space to accommodate the students in these groups.

Second priority will be given to elementary and K-8 students in zoned neighborhoods, and final priority will be given to middle and high school students in zoned neighborhoods. 

Short window for parents to register

Students will not be automatically selected based on their priority tier or need. Parents will have to register via an online portal which will be active between July 9-July 15.

Parents will need digital access to register a child for bus service, but the district is working to ensure all parents have the information they need, both via email and phone messaging, according to Perkins.

“Email is a big part of how we get information out. We also have our phone blasts that go out and so there’ll be some ways we’ll be able to reach those parents” who may have limited digital access, she said. 

When asked if the school district had recommendations or resources for students who are excluded, Perkins was hopeful that more resources would be available in coming weeks. 

Shortage may not be isolated problem

Owens, the analyst, says the school district’s announcement of bus driver shortages is the first one he has heard of in the state, but he doesn’t think the county is going to be the only one facing this problem. 

“I think that there’s a lot of stories there of this one part of public education that everyone relies on but that we’re not treating seriously and we’re not paying for it in a way that will allow districts, especially lower wealth districts to rethink it,” he said.

Savannah-Chatham schools will reevaluate the transportation policy at the end of the fall term, according to Perkins and the school district’s statement.

COVID safety measures continue

Enhanced COVID-19 protocols will likely remain in place when school begins. That means that school buses will adhere to public safety and social distancing standards which limit the amount of students who can be on the bus at any given time. 

Perkins says these COVID safety protocols are being considered in relation to both state and national guidelines. A continued decline in COVID-19 cases and an easement in social distancing guidelines could influence this new transportation policy when it is due to come up for evaluation during spring term, but not likely before.

To apply

The school district is actively recruiting qualified bus drivers who are able to support the district. If you would like to apply, click here: https://savannahccs.tedk12.com/hire/ViewJob.aspx?JobID=2066

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