(THE COURIER-JOURNAL) -- The Jefferson County Board of Education signed off Tuesday on a plan to offer bonus money for bus drivers and special-needs transportation assistants who have good attendance.
JCPS, which has been struggling to find enough bus drivers to cover all its routes, will offer each of its 890 drivers a $200 bonus each time a driver reports to work every day during a two-week pay period.
A last-minute addition by Jefferson County Public Schools staff on Tuesday also added the district’s roughly 120 special-needs transportation assistants to those that would get attendance bonuses as part of this pilot.
Eligible employees who use a sick or personal day or are absent for other reasons including emergencies would not get the bonus, under the pilot plan. The pilot will start retroactively to the beginning of this week and would be reviewed in mid-January to see if it has been successful and should be continued.
The pilot is one part of an eight-step plan the district is working on to try to address a significant shortage in bus drivers that has left the district scrambling often this year to find solutions when drivers call in sick or take days off and the pool of substitute bus drivers is exhausted.
Multiple times this year, JCPS has had to cancel routes – often to alternative schools, although other schools have also had routes canceled. JCPS says it tries to combine routes or do double bus runs before resorting to that option.
Still, JCPS acknowledges that students are being left without rides to schools, and on at least one occasion students have been left waiting on street corners for buses that weren’t going to arrive.
“I have this enormous sense of urgency about our bus driver situation,” board member Lisa Willner said, asking what the district is doing and how it’s deciding which students end up without buses.
JCPS said it is trying a number of different initiatives in addition to the absentee bonus pilot, such as paying drivers as they go through the training program and offering hiring bonuses to employees – giving $75 when drivers earn their CDL license and $150 for drivers who pass their 90-day employment mark.
The district is also trying to do more to recruit and to work with applicants, said Chief Business Officer Tom Hudson.
In addition, during the bus driver shortage, teachers are asked to ride a bus as a bus monitor or drive a school bus (if they have the proper license) and are getting their hourly pay to do so.
JCPS is also trying to come up with a longer-term solution to solve the bus driver shortage, which it said it anticipates being a problem for a while as the economy has improved.
JCPS said it is debating whether driver pay – the starting pay is $16.58 an hour, which is higher than the national average – should be raised.
The district is also continuing to see if changing the start and end times for some of its alternative schools could reduce the number of buses that need to be on the road at one time, requiring fewer drivers.
JCPS Chief Operations Officer Michael Raisor said he did an analysis and found that, if the bell schedules to Minor Daniels Academy, Breckinridge Metropolitan High and the two Teenage Parent Program schools had been changed, the district would not have had to cancel any routes at all so far this school year.
A couple of board members expressed concern about which students’ buses were getting dropped when there weren’t enough drivers to cover routes. JCPS has previously said that it tries to cancel alternative routes first, saying that doing so causes the "least disruption" because those routes are often fairly short and have fewer riders on them, and those riders are often of high school age and therefore more independent.
But some board members noted that students in some of the alternative schools are among the most at-risk students in the district.
Raisor noted that there is no good answer in figuring out which routes must be cut during days of driver shortages.
“When we say that we’ve dropped a route, everyone also needs to understand … that everyone who can conceivably drive a bus is driving one,” Raisor said. He added, “We need to make some really preventive changes for next school year so we can insulate ourselves from this.”
Over the summer, JCPS redid several of its schools' bus routes to try to reduce the number of buses on the road, bringing the number of routes from 964 last school year to about 900 this year, in part by adding more double-runs for buses or "slightly" increasing ride times for some routes.
Earlier this school year, JCPS announced a partnership with KFC where every month, a bus driver with perfect attendance would be randomly chosen to win a family dinner from KFC.
John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, has said that the district's attendance pilot could be a step in the right direction and said the idea is one his union had previously suggested to the district.