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Schools struggle to keep bus drivers, food service employees

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Pickens County Schools Director of Operations Stacy Gilleland recently spoke to the school board about the difficulty they are having hiring and keeping qualified bus drivers – a problem systems across the state face.   

“If we have to add two more routes this year I don’t know what I’ll do,” Gilleland said. “Kids are going to be getting home later and picked up earlier. We’ve got the fleet. We’ve got the equipment. We’ve got everything we need but the personnel. It’s just crazy. But if you go to any county you see this big sign, ‘bus drivers needed.’ It’s not just here.”


The “big sign” is a banner hanging on the side of a school bus that’s moved to different locations around the county to attract potential employees. 

Several other school systems in the state use the same recruiting tactic. Back in February, the Georgia Association of Pupil Transportation reported that 77 percent of the districts say they’re having difficulty filling driver positions, according to the Jackson Herald Today. The stress of driving children, salary, training requirements, unusual hours and others reasons contribute to high turnover rates and recruitment problems. 

The Pickens system currently has 60 bus drivers. The pay scale ranges from $63.90 per day to $69.18 a day. Total annual salary is between $11,502 and $12,452 for a 180-day work year. 

“For the certain person it’s the perfect job because you’re four to five hours a day,” Gilleland told the board. “Morning and evening. You can do stuff in between.”  

Pickens Schools Chief Finance Officer Amy Smith pointed to changes in the school system’s health plan as a possible culprit in the lack of applicants. Smith said at one time the school system had a less expensive, better insurance plan and “almost every single bus driver took it.”

“That’s why they worked for us,” she said. “As that plan has changed the percentage of non-certified staff, including food service, as that benefit diminished it has become more expensive and we don’t have that draw anymore. That’s seems to be consistent with counties our size.”

Of the 60 bus drivers, 50 have health insurance through the Pickens County Board of Education. Of the 77 total employees in the transportation department, including drivers, 59 have insurance through the school system. 

Smith said some of these non-certified employees like bus drivers or food service workers, who are required to put money towards their health insurance just like certified employees, can find cheaper insurance other places. The amount of the employee buy-in is different depending on which plan is selected, and whether it’s for an individual or for an individual with a spouse and/or children. 

  “For a bus driver making $11,000 a year it’s not worth it,” Smith said. 

The operations director said he is surveying other systems for ideas to attract and keep employees, and asked the school board for any ideas they have. He said one option could be a one-time bonus for people who agree to get their CDL license, which is required to be a bus driver. 

“I need help because I’m racking my brain,” he told the board.  

Gilleland said he would rather implement incentives that have been successful in other districts rather than pilot their own incentive program. 

Three potentials were trained last month, “but two only committed to being monitors because they aren’t comfortable driving,” he said. “But at least we’ve got monitors.” 

The schools’ food service branch is also struggling to keep employees for a smorgasbord of reasons. School nutrition director Beth Thompson said most of her employees have left over health issues, family issues, for other jobs, more money, or to retire. 

Gilleland said food service workers start as subs to learn the ins and outs.

“It’s a skilled job,” he said. “You can’t just come in and do it.”  

Thompson said with fewer employees and others ready for retirement, she plans to take the opportunity to rebuild the program. 

Pickens County School Board Chair Mike Cowart said he knew it sounded “crazy,” but suggested enlisting students.

The nutrition director has talked with other school districts that employ students in the work-study program.  

“I could pay them to work in one of our kitchens,” she said. “I could teach them quantity food production, forecasting, inventory, anything they need to know. They could get class credit and a little bit of money. I definitely want to do that but I would need some help. Not a crazy idea.” 

Cowart and the rest of the board offered support finding a solution for both departments.

“[Bus drivers and food service employees] are integral to us being able to open our doors every day and run our school system,” Cowart said.