School board OKs pay raise, incentives
Ongoing bus driver shortages in New London
By John Faucher
The New London School Board approved a $2 per hour pay increase for its bus drivers.
The board also approved creating recruitment incentives for new drivers at a Feb. 8 meeting.
The approvals came in response to an ongoing local, state and national bus driver shortage.
Director of Business Services Joe Marquardt informed the board in January, “We are in dire need of more bus drivers.”
He said at the time, the district had three open afternoon routes and two open morning routes.
“Thankfully we have a few sub drivers that understand the challenges we are facing and continue to drive,” Marquardt wrote in an administrator report.
“Frankly put, if we do not get more drivers, we may be challenged to run routes differently. This will put families and students in challenging situations in order to be transported to school,” he wrote.
He said the district provides paid training and new drivers could be trained and licensed within a few weeks time frame if they make the commitment.
Marquardt thanked current drivers and the transportation department for ensuring that routes ran smoothly so far this year, but he warned the shortage was nearing critical levels.
On January 25, he said the district’s total compensation committee reviewed comparable driver pay data to try and address the shortage.
The committee drafted recommendations to the board to increase driver pay by $2 per hour.
The proposed increased bumped the beginning route pay up to $21.79 per hour from $19.79 per hour.
Experienced route pay went up from $22.79 to $24.79, sub pay increased from $19.79 to $21.79 and super sub pay increased from $21.29 to $23.29.
Field trip pay increased from $12.46 to $14.47 per hour.
Along with the pay increase, the committee recommended creating a $500 recruitment incentive for new drivers that would be payable to the new driver and $500 for any employee of the district that helps successfully recruit a new driver to the pool.
Marquardt said the incentive program would be capped at $5,000 for the remainder of the 2021 calendar year.
“From a budgetary standpoint it would not increase the board’s budget as adopted in October because of scenarios that have happened throughout the year,” Marquardt said.
The transportation budget could support the additional expenditures into next year as well because it will have a surplus due to reduced fuel costs this year, fewer trips due to COVID 19 and the combination or elimination of routes this year.
Marquardt told the board that the total compensation committee “talked a great deal” about how it could combat the driver shortage and look at comparatives around the area before making the recommendations for the pay increase and incentive program.
“We are recommending that this would start immediately and continue into the future,” said Marquardt.
Concerns over optics
Board President Terry Wegner said his biggest concern is the optics.
“You’re issuing a nine to ten percent increase and if we follow our history of CPI we’re going to offer our teaching and support staff 1.24 percent,” said Wegner.
Board member John Heideman noted comparables such as benefits which are not offered to bus drivers. He also said, “That’s why we’re in this position, because we’re not being competitive.”
Wegner responded, “That’s not what I understood.”
He asked, “Are we competitive in this market with our current wages?”
Marquardt said, “We are. You know, we’re lower than some, we’re higher than others. Now, I think the transportation market is extremely short no matter where you go or where you drive. Every terminal, whether it’s public or private contractors operating the local entity, you can see help wanted signs.”
“I think at this time the committee felt like this is an opportunity to try and see what happens there. The optics were discussed,” Marquardt said.
The committee is also reviewing options to provide staff one time incentives for their “extraordinary efforts” to serve students during the 2020-21 school year given the COVID-19 challenges.
Marquardt said the committee will continue to discuss options and funding methods for employee incentives and potentially make a recommendation to the board for consideration.
Board member Pete Bosquez said the committee had an extensive discussion on proposed bus driver pay increase and “the optics.”
“It’s clearly an issue that we’re going to have to be able to stand up and explain to other staff members,” said Bosquez.
He noted that the current competition for bus drivers goes well beyond what other school districts are offering their drivers.
Board member John Heideman cited an example of farm drivers. He said they are not required to have a Commercial Driver’s License or CDL to drive for a farm.
“It’s not going to get any better,” said Heideman.
“It’s going to get worse when it comes to anybody that’s required to have a CDL because the obligation on the driver’s end keeps going up and up with the liability of taking on that position,” he added.
“The pay in the past hasn’t kept up with those obligations. I don’t want to drive a bus full of kids,” said Heideman.
“I don’t think this is out of line at all with what we expect responsibility wise from all of them.”
Future of school transportation
Wegner responded, “I guess my point is John: If the competition is this great between districts, is the model of the district hiring the drivers and owning the buses still the model that works for us?”
“That’s a different discussion right? That’s downstream, but that’s my question,” said Wegner.
“If this is one of our biggest challenges I would suggest that it’s not the core of education. It’s required because of our district there’s no doubt about that, we have to get our children here. Approximately half our children come on busses.
But do we make this somebody else’s challenge and not ours? I don’t know the answer to that but you know we’re a school; we’re not a transportation operation. There are people who do this for living,” said Wegner.
He noted that it’s worth looking at the overall transportation model in the future.
Heideman noted that the district’s costs would be going up whether it’s directly to the district or paying a service to do it for the district.
Board member Chris Martinson mentioned the district is currently tied into a contract with Kobussen for management of its drivers, but he agreed the board should explore different models in the future.
“There are two different ways to go on that model. One way is to contract the whole thing out. The other way is to bring back in-house management of those drivers,” said Martinson.
“That’s a conversation to be had as we get close to that contract expiring. For now we’ve got to deal with the model that we have on the table.”
Heideman made a motion to approve the proposed pay raise with the recruitment incentive for bus drivers. Bosquez seconded the motion and it passed unanimously on a roll call vote.