Students and residents may see Rappahannock County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley driving a school bus amid a continued shortage of bus drivers in the district.
Grimsley recently began taking the training courses to become certified to drive school buses, which includes four exams through the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, 24 hours of classroom instruction and 10 hours of behind-the-wheel training. She said that she hopes to be fully licensed in the next month. Grimsley has not yet received her certification, and isn’t sure how often she will be driving buses once she does.
Grimsley’s mission is to try and see what limitations or challenges currently exist within the hiring process for bus drivers, and if that could be contributing to the ongoing shortage. Grimsley has so far completed about several hours of classroom instruction.
“It seems really overwhelming at first, and I think that leads to why a lot of people won't step through the door to try it,” Grimsley said.
In November, the Rappahannock News reported that the bus driver shortage at RCPS is reflective of a nationwide trend where school systems are struggling to hire employees for a job that demands odd hours with low pay. At the time, RCPS had 14 full-time drivers and a handful of substitutes, which Grimsley said was “not nearly enough.” RCPS has since hired two additional full-time drivers who will begin working in the fall, and an additional substitute driver.
Grimsley said that experiencing the training has given her ideas for recruitment strategies.
Before a prospective driver can begin taking the classroom courses, they must pass four exams through the DMV to receive their Commercial Driver’s License learner’s permit.
Applicants are given the manual and must study for a 50 question general knowledge test, a 25 question test on the bus’s air-brakes system, and the two separate tests for a passenger bus and school bus endorsement.
“For a lot of people, it's not that easy,” said Jerry Goebel, a full-time bus driver and course instructor. “It's a written test at the DMV, but a lot of people have a hard time with it. The commercial driving instructor manual is fairly large.”
Grimsley’s seen first-hand how the state manual and practice tests are written. “There are questions where my teacher brain would love to rewrite them,” she said.
The superintendent said she passed her DMV exams on the first try after using the practice tests offered by the manual, but needed to call the bus shop after not understanding a section of the manual about mirrors on a school bus. She said experiences like that help her to understand why this process can be daunting for some applicants.
“When I was studying the manual to take the permit test, there was a part in the bus driver’s section that talks about all the mirrors that buses have,” she said. “But the picture didn't match the description very well, at all … So I called the bus shop and said, ‘Hey, can I come sit in the bus to actually view these mirrors? Because I'm not understanding what they're talking about from the pictorial representation.’ And they said, ‘of course, come out and see.’”
Full-time drivers in Rappahannock earn $16,956 annually, which works out to $94.20 a day, with some variation for weekend and night work, according to a pay scale provided by the schools. Substitutes earn about $83 per day. Rappahannock pays drivers in four-hour increments, but most don’t work more than three hours and are effectively paid for hours they aren’t working, according to Grimsley.
Prospective drivers are paid for the time it takes to complete the training, and RCPS is currently offering a $500 sign-on bonus for new drivers.
Goebel said that state and federal requirements have become longer and more stringent since he was certified 11 years ago. He said one reason for this could be because the technology involved with school buses has become more complicated.
“Every year the test gets longer and a little bit harder,” Goebel said. “When I took mine 11 years ago, my whole pre-trip [exam] was just one … sheet front and back, and it wasn't that hard.”
He said sometimes applicants need to take the written tests multiple times before passing. But, he said, the safety of the students is always a priority, so he understands why there are so many state and federal requirements.
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