Alejandro Del Razo is a Chatham County parent who strives to give his daughter the best education possible. He had to give up his job to do it.
That’s because the 2022 regional commercial driver shortage meant the county school system had to ration school bus service and transportation to their family’s preferred public school — Esther F. Garrison School for the Arts — was cut. Del Razo left his job driving for the private St. Andrew’s School and chauffeured his daughter to classes.
Less than three weeks before the 2023 school year starts, the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System driver shortage is worse than ever. As of July 12, the district has only 154 confirmed drivers. Last year they had 222, while in 2019, 328 drivers worked for the schools, according to a transportation update presented to the school board in January.
And the school system doesn’t appear to have a solution for the deepening crisis, something that district leaders, advocates and critics of the public school system agree is vital to secure children’s safety and maximize chances for successful learning.
“We want to acknowledge that we know we have some challenges,” new SCCPSS Superintendent Dr. Denise Watts said in response to a question about the shortage last week. “I have not been here long enough to truly unpack that … I’m not prepared today to speak to what those challenges or impacts are.”
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the district’s challenges recruiting and retaining drivers. Tight labor markets mean their skills are in high demand, from logistics companies, the port and even other school districts, while years of underfunding school transport by the state has left local administrators with steep challenges in servicing their bus fleets.
For the drivers themselves, people who in many cases have dedicated their lives to helping provide school children a friendly and safe environment, the money offered by the school system isn’t enough to offset the tremendous responsibility and pressures of the job.
If you were driving a truck full of laptops, Del Razo said, you can put a price on the cargo. “But when you’re transporting people, it’s priceless,” he said. “If something happens to those kids, it’s the driver’s fault. The pay is not equal to the level of responsibility that a bus driver has. And I think that’s why a lot of people just decide to go somewhere else.”
Causes of the shortage
Stephen Owens, education director at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, says that the bus shortages facing Chatham County are ultimately a result of state budget policies.
The Georgia state government helps supplement school transportation budgets through a practice set in 2000, without adjustments to keep pace with rising transportation costs over the last two decades.
While state grants once covered about 50% of Georgia public schools’ yearly transportation budgets, they funded less than 20% of costs in the 2022-2023 school year, Owens said. “We’re talking hundreds of millions of additional dollars in costs that the state used to pay for that now, school districts are covering.”
In lower-income school districts like SCCPSS that can’t heavily rely on property tax income, that extra money is harder to find. “It forces a lot of schools into this terrible decision, where you either pull from the classroom, you don’t hire as many teachers as you would have otherwise hired — or you offer really low pay for bus drivers,” said Owens. “A lot of school districts kind of have to do both.”
The school board discussed this dilemma while approving the 2024 fiscal year budget and moved $3 million out of transportation and towards deferred maintenance. The district plans to pay for any newly hired bus drivers by using the staff reserve budget, Chief Financial Officer Larry O. Jackson told the school board last month. “We have a mechanism in place where we can start hiring drivers and replenishing those positions that we took out of transportation. But we did reduce the transportation budget to make this happen,” Jackson said.
Vanessa Miller-Kaigler, SCCPSS Chief Operations Officer, announced to the board at its July 12th meeting the district has set the starting salary for drivers at $18.67 per hour, higher than it has ever been. The district is also transitioning many drivers from 5-hour schedules to 8 hours.
However, rising private sector wages still outpace the school district. The average salary for a port driver in Savannah is around $30 per hour, according to Zip Recruiter. When Del Razo drove for St. Andrew’s private school in 2021, CDL-certified drivers were paid $18 per hour, while non-CDL certified drivers were paid $16 per hour, he said.
The private charter bus industry in Savannah is also competing for experienced bus drivers, said Patrick Fahey, Safety and Logistics Manager for Kelly Tours. “Out of all the applicants that I process, school bus drivers are pretty much always the ones that I’m looking through,” he said. Kelly Tours declined to publicly share their driver wages, but Fahey said their growth has remained steady since 2021.
A look at the shortage
School bus driver shortages have created difficulties for parents and students, like Del Razo and his daughter.
As of June 2021, the school has eliminated transportation for students attending choice school programs outside their zone of residence.
Twenty four schools in the district host choice programs, which are specialized curriculums or programs like cinematic studies, veterinary science, or engineering, among many. Students from across the district can apply for and attend these schools for their unique programs and offerings.
The district also stopped providing or assisting with transportation to its charter schools. These changes are in line with other school districts across the nation, said SCCPSS public information manager Sheila Blanco.
According to Blanco, around 26,000 students used school buses before June 2021. As of December 2022, 21,231 students were eligible for transportation. At that time, average daily ridership was 17,205.
As stated in a June 2021 district press release and at the July 12th school board meeting, students are eligible for transportation to school if they live 1.5 or more miles away from the school within their district zone. Students with individualized Education Programs (IEP), or 504 plans that include transportation requirements, as well as homeless students, are also eligible.
The students who can’t find alternative transportation to choice schools or programs are most often low-income, and students of color, said Daniela Rodriguez, executive director of Migrant Equity Southeast. “For many of the low-income immigrant parents that we work with … a lot of them heavily rely on the school bus,” she said, citing strict work schedules and lack of access to cars and sometimes drivers licenses.
One such mother that Rodriguez works with pays a neighbor $20 a day to give her child a ride to and from a Garden City school. “She had to pay $100 [a week] out of her pocket in order for her daughter to be able to go to school, because she had to work and she couldn’t do it herself,” said Rodriguez.
For families all around the city, lack of transportation access has changed parents’ routines and spending. Melena Johnson, a parent at Esther F. Garrison School for the Arts, said that she is fortunate to work at a job that allows her to arrive late so that she can drop off her child, who for two years has been excluded from bus pickups.
“The ability to have a bus drop my daughter at my work in the afternoons would save us thousands in after school care,” she said.
For Del Razo, whose daughter also attends Garrison, the lack of school bus service forced him to switch to a part-time job, a decision that has economic consequences for his family. “We’re going day by day, pretty much. If I [could] have a full time job, we could be a little bit more relaxed with our expenses,” he said.
Other parents at Garrison have formed carpool Facebook groups where they can find shared rides for students. Meanwhile, some rely on after school programs. Shana Williams (no relation to Shanekia Williams), who is also a parent at the school, said that Garrison has the most kids at the Prime Time after-school program out of all the schools in Savannah.
“On the roster last year, it was an average of 120 [students]. Because parents couldn’t figure out how to get their kids to school so they could get to work on time,” she said.
School find new routes
Tybee Island Maritime Academy (TIMA), one of the district’s charter schools, has found alternative means to respond to the driver shortage. When the school lost its transportation services from the district in June 2021, it entered a 5-year agreement with Kelly Tours instead.
The school now pays about $500,000 a year for four buses that allow many to continue attending this school where transportation is key due to its location on Tybee Island. Principal Peter Ulrich said that it was a rare and beneficial opportunity that the school district provided transportation to their charter school in the first place. Given this, TIMA’s governing board anticipated potential changes and set aside money in the school’s operational budget for potential transportation costs. The partnership with Kelly Tours has worked well so far, Ulrich said.
However, the buses don’t have enough space for every student who needs transportation. Currently, about 430 students attend TIMA, and about 40 families “would still like transportation,” Ulrich said. “But we don’t have another bus or a seat to offer.”
The school uses a lottery system for the bus seats and weights economically disadvantaged students so they are four times more likely to get a seat on the bus. The lack of a guarantee is still a barrier, though. “We do have families that tell us that if they can’t be guaranteed transportation, then they can’t accept a seat [in the school],” said Ulrich.
The students who can’t find alternative transportation to a choice school are most often low-income, and students of color, said Del Razo. “This is affecting kids from the beginning. Because they’re smart. They’re smart, and if they have the tools to be successful, it will be different, you know?” he said. “The lack of transportation … is pushing these families to not take advantage of the choice schools.”
‘I feel like we don’t get paid for our services.’
Shanekia Williams, who now works as a DoorDash driver, left her job as a SCCPSS bus driver in 2014. She pointed to concerns very similar to those of some drivers today. “There’s a reason why it’s a shortage, there’s a reason why people don’t want to drive the bus,” she said.
Like Del Razo, Williams spoke about the heavy responsibility that comes with transporting kids. In addition to navigating the route safely, drivers are often the sole adult responsible for large groups of kids between several hours a day. They also have to interface between parents, students, and teachers.
“You don’t know how these kids are feeling when they get on the bus,” she said. “Sometimes some kids come and talk to you. Sometimes they might be feeling a little down, like ‘hey, Ms. Williams, can I talk to you?’ I’m like ‘Hey, what’s going on, you all right?’”
Williams took pride in the way she drove her bus. She put up colorful decorations, and sometimes sang with the students as they drove to school. Now, she wonders why this work wasn’t respected or paid more.
“I loved driving,” she said, “but right now if you asked me to drive, I don’t want to. I just don’t. I feel like we don’t get paid for our services.”
While the district continues forward with job fairs, advertisements, and referral bonuses to attract more drivers. Others see transportation as one symptom of a larger system that does not equitably support students.
“If the system fails to invest more in bus drivers… then students are the ones who end up paying the price for it — and also parents,” said Rodriguez.
Editor’s note: Vanessa Miller-Kaigler is the SCCPSS Chief Operations Officer. Her name was misspelled an earlier version of this article.