LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It was a long, tumultuous school year for hundreds of JCPS bus drivers as they dealt with disruptive and abusive student behavior, often while trying to monitor traffic signals and navigate around pedestrians and other vehicles.

“Bullying, cursing, fighting, assaulting other kids, spitting out the windows onto other cars,” says Adniana Harris, a 20-year veteran driver for JCPS, in an interview with WDRB News last week. “In many cases, the kids received no discipline and a lot of us felt like we were not being supported by the district.”

New data released by the district this week shows there were 17,662 bus referrals written during the 2015-16 year – a 168 percent increase from the 6,571 referrals that were reported in 2014-15, according to data obtained by WDRB under Kentucky’s open records law.

The data also shows there were 994 student fights on buses last school year – an increase from the 560 fights reported on buses during the 2014-15 school year.

Officials say the numbers may be inflated because of issues with past documentation, but they acknowledge student behavior has been a growing problem.

And now, as JCPS prepares for the start of 2016-17 year, officials are working to fill a large deficit within the district’s transportation department – they need to hire at least 75 bus drivers in order to ensure all of its 940 daily routes are filled by Aug. 10.

“We’ve never had so many vacancies,” said Rick Caple, the district’s transportation director. “It’s a destitute situation. We are really hurting, and we know there are more who will quit before the start of the school year.”

JCPS is also searching for a new transportation director, as Caple is retiring Aug. 1 after 20 years.

Mike Raisor, chief operations officer, agrees this is a “critical time” for JCPS. He says the district has held job fairs and advertisements to recruit new drivers, but has only hired about a dozen drivers since April.

“It is my goal by the end of this month though to have this solved one way or another,” he told WDRB in an interview last week. “It does us no benefit to create a plan that isn't feasible. We have a situation where we are looking to cover our routes in different, innovate ways. Everything is on the table.”

'It's only gotten worse'

Officials believe one reason for the huge jump in referrals is because the district changed how it was recording them in January, following a concern that some of the problems on its buses were not being properly recorded.

“The bus behavior reset that started on Jan. 6 significantly increased documentation of bus referrals,” said Jennifer Brislin, a JCPS spokeswoman.

The district updated its protocols to require that all bus referrals be routed through an assistant superintendent to ensure that they are being properly recorded to Infinite Campus, a statewide data storing system, Raisor said.

Referrals stem from relatively minor incidents such as students repeatedly turning around in their seats, refusing to sit down or littering on the bus, to more serious incidents such as fighting, having a weapon or committing another criminal act.

JCPS transports 70,000 students to and from school daily, and the data shows that the vast majority of students behave while riding the bus.  

Indeed, the 17,662 referrals from this year can be traced to 7,595 students and over half of those students (4,138) had only one referral. 

But the other 3,457 students had more than one referral -- 34 percent (2,602 students) had between 2-4 referrals, 9 percent (686 students) had between 5-9 referrals and 2 percent -- 169 students -- had 10 or more referrals.

Raisor said the student behavior issue is something “we are working hard to solve.”

“We felt like this year, we really tried to make a concerted effort to support our drivers and the teachers union, as well as the schools, to make sure our bus routes are as safe as they can be,” he said.

But John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, says the district has not done enough, adding that the problems with behavior started three years ago.

“We tried to address it back then,” said Stovall, who put up billboards throughout Louisville to raise attention to the problem. “There's really been no movement made. It has only gotten worse. It's no wonder we don’t have enough drivers.”

And with the district's Student of Conduct up for review this year with recommendations that would reduce punishments for some students, Stovall says it's like "adding insult to injury."

Superintendent Donna Hargens has yet to bring any of the code of conduct recommendations to the board for approval and time is running out to get them approved before the start of the new school year.

Nationwide shortage of school bus drivers

JCPS has about 1,100 bus drivers who drive about 940 daily routes. It operates a fleet of approximately 1,250 buses.

The starting pay for a bus driver in JCPS is $16.58, which is higher than the national average rate of $15.20 an hour, but the deficit JCPS is experiencing comes at a time when there is a shortage of school bus drivers nationwide.

“This shortage is probably the most pronounced we have seen in the past decade,” said Thomas McMahon, executive editor of School Bus Fleet, a trade magazine dedicated to the school transportation industry since 1956.

McMahon said there are a “variety of factors at the local level” that affect whether a district is able to recruit and retain enough drivers. But it’s not just things like pay, morale and poor student behavior that are forcing drivers out of the field.

“Over the years, our research has consistently found that the prevalence of school bus driver shortage is high when the unemployment rate is low, and vice versa,” McMahon wrote in a February 2016 article. “It seems that when more jobs are available, fewer people are willing to get behind the wheel of a school bus, or they are drawn to better-paying gigs.”

The unemployment rate in the Louisville metropolitan area – which includes surrounding counties and Southern Indiana – was 4.1 percent as of April, according to the most recently available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A year earlier, it was 4.4 percent.

Louisville’s job market has been improving steadily since 2010, when local unemployment was as high as 11.9 percent.

“It's really an unintended consequence of an improving economy... nationwide, there are lots of good jobs that are year-around and aren't a split shift,” Raisor said.

And JCPS isn’t the only district looking for different ways to address the problem.

Last fall, Metro Nashville (Tenn.) Public Schools gave its bus drivers pay raises, a 40-hour work week and attendance bonuses to address driver recruitment and retention.

“We are looking at every possible mean, everything is on the table in making sure we have the best drivers and that we treat our drivers the best we can,” Raisor said.

'Challenging routes' will continue with more pay

The 2015-16 year began in August with JCPS bus drivers approving a new contract that gave experienced drivers an additional $2 an hour incentive pay for working troublesome routes – a designation based on factors like how many discipline referrals were written on a particular route.

While district officials were disappointed that experienced drivers did not bid on the troubled routes last year, JCPS will extend the same offer this year.

“We hope to continue that and we hope to offer those routes earlier,” Raisor said. “The routes became available only a few days before the drivers bid on the routes, there wasn’t really an opportunity to publicize those as well. Hopefully, there will be some continued incentives to drive our buses.”

As the school year progressed, WDRB spoke with hundreds of JCPS teachers, parents, students and other staff members who said they were frustrated with the disruptive behavior and what they consider to be a lax response from district officials.

“Some people can't deal with the kids, some don't want to deal with the kids, but then when you don't have the support from the district that you need to help you maintain order, a lot of drivers feel like why do they need to keep doing this job” said Harris, who says she watched a number of good bus drivers quit during the past year.

At times, bus driver absences were also a huge obstacle for JCPS. On average, about 120 drivers were absent each day for a variety of reasons – including sick leave or vacation.

But on some days, there were as many as 180 bus drivers absent, which led JCPS to cancel routes to and from the district's alternative schools and combine dozens of other routes.

“Absenteeism was a little worse than it normally is,” Raisor said, adding that the district is also working to address that problem.

'Make it a good, desirable place to work'

Stovall thinks that having drivers work a 40-hour work week and increasing pay could help.

“A competitive wage is one thing,” he said. “But if a driver knows he or she isn't going to have to deal with a student discipline issue on their bus, I think that would go a long way into retaining drivers and hiring new drivers.”

Stovall added that a recommendation from a comprehensive salary study that was released last month to freeze the pay of some workers – which included the district’s bus drivers – did not help boost morale.

“It was a slap in the face,” Stovall said.

JCPS and the Teamsters are currently negotiating the wages portion of their contract, which should take about a month.

McMahon said some districts are offering bonuses to current drivers who recruit new drivers, while other districts are offering sign-on bonuses if they stay on for a certain period of time.

However, he adds that it’s not just about pay.

“I think it has to be a mix of everything,” McMahon said.

“One of the most important factors is that districts must work to make it a good, desirable place to work. It’s often a thankless job, being a school bus driver," he said. "Giving out awards for safety or perfect attendance, having an employee appreciation celebration – these are all examples that other districts have used to combat the shortage.”

Raisor said from an operations perspective, he is looking at every possible solution to the problem.

"Having a large, complex transportation system can be a challenge," he said. "But I am confident that we will be able to get a handle on this."

Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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