Bus Contractors Seek Rate Increases To Cover Rising Costs

Bus Contractors Seek Rate Increases To Cover Rising Costs
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SNOW HILL – Facing rising fuel and maintenance costs, school bus drivers continue to advocate for increased pay.

Members of the Worcester County Bus Contractors Association are expected to approach the Worcester County Commissioners next week to share rate concerns they don’t believe have been addressed by the school system. They say they’re struggling to cover expenses with what they’re currently paid.

“This is not what we want,” said Mike Donoway, president of the association. “This is what we need.”

Donoway and other members of the bus contractors association approached the school board last month seeking an increase in rates. With not enough done by the school system in their view, they’re now asking the Worcester County Commissioners for help.

“The reality is we can’t afford to keep our buses on the road,” said bus driver Lori Thompson, secretary of the association.

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In Worcester County, 69 bus contractors are responsible for transporting the 3,649 students — slightly over half of the county’s enrollment — who rely on the school system for transportation to school every day. The total yearly income for a bus contractor working the minimum route — three hours/70 miles a day — is slightly more than $57,000. That breaks down to $20,160 for mileage and fuel, $12,193 in hourly pay, $3,500 in administrative fees, $20,115 in per vehicle allotment (PVA) and $1,133 in air conditioning allotment.

According to Thompson, nearly all of that income is eaten up in expenses. Contractors buy their own buses — which now cost nearly $135,000 new — and as a result pay more than $24,000 a year in bus payments for the first seven or eight years they have the vehicle. Planned, regular maintenance for the bus costs roughly $4,500 a year. Fuel — it now costs about $490 to fill up an empty bus — could cost up to $9,000 a year. Miscellaneous expenses — cleaning, cell phone, supplies — cost about $1,500 a year. Bus insurance costs $1,000 a year while taxes amount to $1,500.

Contractors are able to purchase medical insurance through the school system, but they pay the full cost — roughly $6,800 a year. They do not have any retirement or pension plans and don’t get longevity bonuses. Thompson said contractors are also responsible for bus repairs, paying substitute drivers if they’re sick and renting buses if their own isn’t usable.

Once expenses are taken into account, bus contractors are making far less than minimum wage according to Thompson.

“Right now, the system isn’t economically sustainable,” she said.

The association brought contractors’ concerns to the school system at the start of the budget process. They asked for an increase of $1.5 million in the county’s bus contractor spending to allow for increases to the hourly, mileage and PVA rates.

The school system reviewed the requested increases and worked into the coming year’s budget an hourly increase, bringing the rate from $22.58 to $25, and a mileage increase, bringing that from $1.60 to $1.62. The school system also increased the PVA from $20,115 to $20,920 for new buses put in service.

Bus contractors said that wasn’t enough, however, and approached the Worcester County Board of Education last month seeking what they called a compromise over their original request. They asked for $26.29 an hour and $1.80 per mile.

With no changes to the budget following that meeting, they’re now planning to share their concerns with the commissioners. County government funds the majority of the school system’s annual $118 million budget.

“We’re hoping the message doesn’t fall yet again on deaf ears,” Thompson said.

Vince Tolbert, the school system’s chief financial officer, said the rates in the coming year’s budget were developed after officials reviewed the bus contractors’ request and compared rates in neighboring school districts.

“We appreciate the bus contractors and what they do,” he said.

He said that with the increases Worcester built into its budget, the average bus contract — five hours/100 miles a day — next year will be worth more than $76,000. While the bus driver who does the minimum three hours/70 miles will earn less than that, he said most contractors drive more than the minimum. Bus contractors will also receive the same raises – 5.5% — the teachers will earn in the next fiscal year budget if the commissioners approve it.

Tolbert added that next year the average bus contract in Wicomico County would amount to $66,967 and the average bus contract in Somerset would amount to $63,200.

“We try to make sure we’re competitive,” he said. “We’re well above Somerset and Wicomico.”

Nevertheless, Worcester County’s contractors say they just want to see rates reach a level that will allow the current system to be sustainable.

“It’s not about us making waves it’s about making a plan,” Thompson said. “We want to have a solution to continue the great service Worcester County has.”

Whaleyville farmer Harry Wimbrow has been driving a school bus in Worcester County for the past four decades. While he never expected to get rich doing it, he wants his costs to be covered. He ensures his buses are available for inspection multiple times a year, gets them repaired at state certified shops and deals with rising fuel and maintenance costs. And while the bus is technically a part-time job, there are many times he’s dropped everything to make sure kids could get to an athletic game.

“I’ll be in the field working and they’ll call and say can you be here in 25 minutes,” he said.

Wanda Gray, another contractor, recalled the bomb threats that occurred with regularity several years ago. She said drivers were advised to stay near their buses because schools were dismissing early in response to threats.

“How are you supposed to get another job when you have to stay near your bus?” she said.

While the drivers said they could go to a convenience store to make more per hour and get a retirement plan, they do what they do because they want to provide a valuable service to the community. When contractors without bus warranties have had to make costly repairs to get their bus back on the road, they’ve taken out loans and made purchases with credit cards.

“They didn’t throw their hands up,” Thompson said. “They did whatever it took to keep their buses running.”

She noted that if the county were to take over its school buses, as some jurisdictions have, buying the vehicles and hiring the drivers, the cost would exceed $17 million.

“Everybody has blinders on,” Thompson said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.