Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: The shortage that could stall West Virginia’s schools

by Tena McElwain

It’s a problem that West Virginia school systems have been facing for a few years, and it continues to escalate. There’s a shortage of a particular group of highly trained personnel who are integral to our education system. In fact, many would describe them as the cog in the center of our school districts; without these education professionals, our schools literally stop functioning.

You may think that I’m talking about certified teachers, but I’m not. While the teacher shortage is just as widespread and serious in our state, I’m talking about another group of employees who are equally critical to our schools and our children: school bus drivers.

Driving our winding and sometimes mountainous roads can be a little daunting at times for most folks. Now imagine doing it in a 35-foot-long bus filled with talkative children and sometimes on wet or snow-covered roads. I know this challenge all too well, as I am a 13-year veteran bus driver for Monongalia County Schools.

School bus drivers in our state go through a rigorous training process to become certified to transport our precious students to and from school. Our state’s school bus drivers are regarded as among the most well-trained in the nation, with an impeccable record of safety. Their high skill level and professionalism have led to them being lured away into the private sector by significantly higher pay and better benefits.

As a result, many county school systems are facing dire shortages of certified bus drivers. A quick Google search shows news articles posted in the last eight months about bus driver shortages in at least six West Virginia counties.

In years past, this was more of an issue of retaining substitute drivers to cover for regular drivers when they were off for illness. Now, it is a full-blown crisis, with county boards unable to hire and retain the bare minimum of full-time bus drivers needed to transport students to and from school daily.

This deficit of certified drivers has a negative effect on students in many ways. Regular routes to and from school are sometimes late, as existing drivers struggle to cover more territory. Some days, a bus may not run at all if no other drivers are able to cover the route. Extracurricular activities or sports teams may not be able to find transportation to away games, putting a hardship on many players and their families.

West Virginia school bus drivers truly care about our children, and most would prefer to continue working in our school systems. But the reality is, they must make a salary that allows them to take care of their own children as well. We can’t fault anyone for wanting to improve their family’s financial situation; what we can do, however, is pay them a wage that reflects their skill level and value to our school systems.

If the private sector can pay bus drivers more, then our state needs to do the same. Our legislative leaders must put forth a meaningful pay increase for school bus drivers that makes their salaries comparable with the private sector. The wheels on our children’s buses can’t go ‘round without a highly skilled, certified bus driver.

Tena McElwain is a 13-year veteran bus driver for Monongalia County Schools. She also serves as president of AFT-Monongalia County Service Personnel, AFL-CIO.