What’s It Take To Be A Worcester School Bus Driver?

What’s It Take To Be A Worcester School Bus Driver?
Whats It

BERLIN – During this spring’s annual Worcester County budget debate, local teachers caused a stir as they resorted to work-to-rule-like demonstrations in an effort to share their frustration over Worcester County not providing funding for pay increases.

As the board of education struggled to reallocate the funds it was granted to find the necessary money — eventually eliminating 32 positions to do so — teachers continued to advocate for themselves, pointing out that Worcester County teacher pay rates ranked 13th in the state. Local bus drivers, on the other hand, this year were the second highest paid in the state. Though that fact gained little attention during the budgeting process, it did prompt The Dispatch to take a closer look at the profession.

According to Steve Price, the school system’s director of transportation, Worcester County Public Schools uses 79 bus drivers. Those drivers, it’s important to note, are independent contractors, not salaried employees of the school system. Once they’re hired, they renew their contract with the school system each year.

Unlike many counties, Worcester requires its drivers to provide their own school buses. While the buses are expensive, ranging from $110,000 to $120,000, school system officials believe drivers take better care of the vehicle if it’s their own.

“We think that it provides pride of ownership,” Price said. “He or she has an investment. If they’re simply a driver, they might not be as careful.”

In Maryland, there are 15 counties that operate in the same manner as Worcester. Most of the others, Price said, contracted with large companies to provide bus service to students.

Anyone interested in becoming a bus driver for Worcester County is required to have a CDL (Commercial Driver License). Typically, Price said, such an individual would contact his office and submit an application. They would then be subject to a background check, drug test and be required to pass a physical.

At that point, they have to go through classroom training. While the state’s regulations require just six hours of this training, Worcester County puts its drivers through 10 hours in the classroom. They’re then faced with nine hours of behind-the-wheel training in a bus with one of the school system’s veteran drivers. The final step in the process is for the newly certified driver to go back to Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration to get a passenger and school bus endorsement on their license.

Would-be school bus drivers go through all that to be placed on the county’s 50-person substitute driver list. That list, however, is what Price and his associates consult when it’s time to hire a new driver. Being on the list also means drivers will occasionally have opportunities to substitute for regular drivers who are sick or unable to drive the bus on occasion.

“Some drive frequently and some not so frequently,” he said. “Most of them have other means of employment.”

As for the 79 drivers who have full-time contracts with the school system, they’re tasked with providing a bus and transporting students to school 180 days a year. While some do just that, others take on extra duties and drive students to sports games, field trips and summer school.

Base pay for a Worcester County school bus driver is $20.86 an hour. Their daily routes, which average 102 miles a day, take them 4.75 hours to complete each school day.

Drivers are reimbursed for mileage at a rate of $1.48 a mile. A driver traveling the average of 102 miles a day then, in a single day would earn $99 for his time and $151 for mileage.

Price says that drivers who take on extra tasks, such as transporting athletic teams to away games, continue to be paid at the same rate, earning $20.86 an hour for their time and $1.48 a mile.

Each driver is also provided with $3,500 annually to compensate them for the time they spend doing things like getting their buses inspected and participating in annual training.

While the amount the county’s bus contractors make annually varies based on how much they drive, in a presentation at June’s school board meeting Superintendent Jerry Wilson said the average bus contract in Worcester County amounted to $76,000 a year. He said the average teacher salary in Worcester County was $61,000.

“I think the board of education and the superintendent have been very supportive of contractors and appreciate the job they do,” Price said.

Jim Purnell, president of the Worcester County Bus Contractors Association and a school bus driver in Worcester County for 39 years, says some drivers work two jobs but that most make a good living with their school bus.

“We do well,” he said. “I think you’ll find most contractors make a decent living.”

It’s not the pay that brings people to the profession though.

“Every driver in this county has a love for kids,” Purnell said. “If you don’t, you’ve got no reason to drive a school bus.”

He says drivers that do take on more than their daily route work 11 months out of the year. In August, they take a break from driving to catch up on new regulations and get any needed repairs made to their buses before school begins in the fall.

“We keep our buses in tip top shape,” he said. “We take pride in what we do.”

Purnell, a county commissioner from 1996-2014, says the cooperation between the county’s bus contractors and board of education officials through the years is what’s kept both parties pleased with the system.

“We all work together as a team,” Purnell said. “It takes a team to do a good job.”