updated 5/31/2005 3:17:14 AM ET 2005-05-31T07:17:14

Wanted: Drivers to transport dozens of often-unruly students to school on a 38-foot bus through congested suburban traffic.

Requirements: Extensive training, criminal background checks and physical exams. Sincere affection for young people is strongly preferred, even when they’re misbehaving.

Starting salary: $13,920.

Add noisy working conditions to the job description, and it’s not surprising that many school districts are having a tough time hiring bus drivers. The effects are seen in drivers burdened with covering extra routes, and parents upset because their children are late getting to and from school.

At Pinchbeck Elementary School in the Richmond suburb of Henrico County, the carpool line forms more than 20 minutes before dismissal, as parents idle in their minivans and sport utility vehicles.

Even though students can ride the bus, Tracy Rice said she’d rather go through this daily routine than have her two children get home more than an hour after school ends. Because they’re on the second bus run, they would have to remain at school for 45 minutes until the driver returns from the first route.

“I spend my afternoons riding around,” Rice said. “But that’s OK.”

Henrico County has 24 full-time bus drivers, plus 20 supervisors and others pulled in to cover routes, transportation supervisor Harold Grimes said. The average driver turnover is between 10 percent and 13 percent a year; there are now 23 driver vacancies.

Grimes said that besides balking at the starting salary of $13,920, or $10.69 an hour ($14,153 annually and $10.87 hourly for the upcoming school year), potential bus drivers also consider the responsibility involved, especially after recent bus accidents and violent incidents on buses.

“They’re in charge with those children,” Grimes said. “Plus it’s hard to watch for the traffic. When it’s added together, people say, ‘Whoa, why am I trying to do this?”’

Dangers, on and off the road
Virginia has had two fatal accidents this year — a teenager was killed in February and last month two children died after their bus collided with a truck. And in Tennessee, a 14-year-old was charged with fatally shooting bus driver Joyce Gregory in March because he “hated her,” according to a recorded statement played in court.

Earlier this month, a security camera on a school bus in Punta Gorda, Fla., captured a fight between a substitute driver and two teens. The driver was charged with misdemeanor battery and the teens with assault.

The safety record of some drivers also is of concern. Earlier this year in North Carolina, a bus driver who had been drinking was tracked down by authorities after one of his passengers called 911 from a cell phone and reported the man was asleep at the wheel.

The obvious way to attract drivers would be to boost salaries, but the prospects of that happening are slim, said Charlie Gauthier, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

“Let’s face it, the education budget in most states is tight to say the least,” he said. “In many states the buses, fuel, drivers, et cetera — that part is competing with the same dollars as books, teacher salaries, computers and upgrading schools.”

In Boston, where a private contractor provides school bus drivers, the school district’s cost cuts have resulted in the consolidation of routes, said Steve Gillis, president of Local 8751 of the United Steelworkers Association, which represents the drivers.

“There are too few drivers to get the job done,” Gillis said. “The pressures that we are under are more children being put onto bus runs, more distance to travel in the same amount of time, routes are being designed to pick up children from four different schools in the same run.”

Tough jobs to fill
In Fairfax County, home to one of the nation’s largest school districts, driver recruiting has fallen victim to the area’s good economy. The affluent region’s unemployment rate is 2.4 percent.

“Although we have people looking for work, they’re not the kind of people we can use,” including people with criminal records, driving violations or lack of English skills, said transportation director Linda Farbry.

Fairfax is among school divisions that have gone to great lengths to recruit drivers, including blanketing the region with mailings and fliers and offering bonuses to school and county employees who refer drivers who remain on the job for three months.

Megan Williams, a mother of four, thinks potential bus drivers don’t want to put up with disrespectful children, for which she blames parents.

“I am part of the problem. I have four boys. They are the kind that don’t sit still and say, ’Yes, ma’am, no, ma’am,”’ Williams said. “I drive my van with my four kids in it and that’s enough. I can’t imagine a bus full of them.”

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