School plea: Drivers wanted

Alachua County School District bus driver Ella Mae Whetstone, 56, demonstrates the operation of a lift used for passengers with disabilities at the Alachua County Transportation Center, 1800 Hawthorne Road, on Thursday. Whetstone has worked in Alachua County for 26 years and has been a driver for 28 years total.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 31, 2006 at 11:29 p.m.

School plea: Drivers wanted

When job applicants realize what's involved in driving a school bus, a lot of them tell Eddie Guida they wouldn't do it for a million dollars.
So imagine how hard it is for the Flagler County Public Schools transportation director to find part-time drivers at $9.77 an hour.
"The last several years, it's been getting worse and worse. We're short by probably 22 drivers in a fleet of 135," he said, adding that about half the people he interviews decide not to take the job.
So like many school transportation directors dealing with the ongoing driver shortage in Florida and nationwide, Guida's trying a new route to ensure children get to school on time in 2006-07. He's getting rid of 453 of the Northeast Florida district's 1,057 bus routes. Children will be picked up in larger groups on busier streets, and middle and high school students - who will start school at the same time this year in Flagler County - will be riding the bus together.
In the Lafayette County School District, which is in a rural area northwest of Gainesville, transportation director Joey Pearson said bus mechanics and maintenance workers with commercial driver's licenses have to double as emergency drivers. This year, he said the district's hoping to certify more school employees: the athletic coaches. That way, they'll be able to drive their own teams back and forth.
The Lafayette County School Board is trying to attract drivers to its 11 regular bus routes, too. Earlier this summer, the board voted to stop requiring applicants to have a high school diploma. But even with that change, Pearson said there's no difference in interest in the job. The rural district has just 11 full-time drivers and three subs - each of whom have other jobs - to cover school travel needs.
Lafayette isn't the only school system to require less than a high school diploma. The School District of Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa's busy roadways, asks only that drivers have a 10th-grade education. But its 1,103-driver fleet is still 130 drivers short.
The county's School Board is considering whether to increase drivers' $9.85 per-hour pay. Transportation general manager Karen Strickland said the district also might offer financial incentives to drivers who have good attendance or refer new drivers to the district.
The manager blamed the shortage on low pay, odd hours and stress.
"It's a huge responsibility, transporting people's children back and forth through heavy traffic," she said. "When you think about it, a teacher has 18 kids in a class and faces them. But bus drivers have 84 kids, and their backs are to them."
In Alachua County, the school transportation system is in better shape than some of Florida's struggling districts, but director Steve Githens said he's feeling the effects of the shortage, too.
With only six first-time bus drivers and a handful of experienced hires added to his fleet this summer, Githens said he could use about 15 more substitute drivers to ensure his 164 routes are covered - not to mention field trips and other travel. As of this week, the department had 195 drivers and substitutes.
Githens said the department ran into problems late last school year that forced him to ask qualified office employees and dispatchers to jump behind the wheel when substitutes weren't available. Even then, drivers sometimes had to double up on routes, which is something Githens said should "never" happen.
The director, who was hired mid-year last school year, hopes to start the 2006-07 school year with a plan that will run more smoothly. So far, he's consolidated about a dozen routes to cut down on travel and driver vacancies.
"We want to be as effective as ever, but we also want to be more efficient," he said.
Githens said he's grateful Alachua County's not facing as severe a shortage as many other Florida districts. That could be due in part to the county's higher starting pay rate of $10.18, the fact the county pays drivers to get a commercial driver's license, or the health benefits offered even when drivers work part-time.
Githens said he finds a lot of his drivers are stay-at-home parents, people with additional part-time jobs or retirees looking for a job that will get them out of the house, but not take up all their time. Even with the need for workers, he and his drivers alike said the job's not for everyone.
"You have to really love children and have a lot of patience to do what we do," said Barbara Batton, a 60-year-old Alachua County bus driver known as "Grandma" to her passengers. She said many new drivers leave the job because they can't relate to kids.
Over the past 10 years, Batton's dealt with fighting, screaming and disrespectful children plenty of times on her route through High Springs, but she found ways to get through to the children eventually.
"It's not easy to drive with all that going on, but it's that special feeling you get when they look up at you and want your approval that keeps you coming back," she said.
Another longtime driver in the district, Georgia Merriex, who's in her 14th year driving buses, said the job requires someone who can be a parent, a counselor and an adviser as well as a driver.
The shortage in drivers comes in part from today's tougher criminal history and drug screenings, Merriex said, and she's glad the rules are tough.
"It takes a special person to be a bus driver. You have to have love in your heart for the big yellow, and you've gotta love kids. Some of them are not very lovable, but with the right person, they can be taught how to behave," she said.
Alachua County Schools guarantees new drivers at least six hours of work each day. Even if a driver doesn't reach full-time hours, health benefits are included with the job.
"We really are providing a valuable service here," Githens said. "All people need to do is get over the hump of driving a big vehicle. A lot of people think they can't drive a bus, but believe it or not, they don't bite. It's actually a lot of fun to drive."
Tiffany Pakkala can be reached at 338-3111 or

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