LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jefferson County Public Schools bus drivers may soon receive a $100 bonus for each week they come to work, according to a proposal that will be sent to the school board later this month.

It’s a move being considered as JCPS works to combat a bus driver shortage and reduce the number of drivers calling out sick daily – a problem that has left hundreds of students scrambling to find a ride to and from school.

Since the 2016-17 year began, the district has canceled bus routes on 15 different days. In all, 76 routes – mostly to and from the district’s alternative schools – have been canceled.

“Clearly, we have to come up with some different solutions to not just recruit new drivers, but also retain our drivers and incentivize them to come to work each day,” said Michael Raisor, the district’s chief operations officer. “One of the things we’ve done is look at what other industries have done here in the city and we see things like retention bonuses and attendance bonuses.”

Last month, the school board approved a plan to pay for a new driver’s CDL training – reimbursing them the $75 cost – as well as give them a $150 bonus after they work 90 days.

“Additionally, we are bringing a proposal to the board at the next meeting that there’s a $100 incentive per week for perfect attendance,” Raisor said.

The plan would give them up to $400 a month in extra pay, if they have perfect attendance. Raisor said Thursday if all bus drivers were to come into work each day and get the bonus, it could cost the district up to $2.5 million.

John Stovall, president of Teamsters Local 783, said Thursday he was not aware of the proposal.

“It’s funny, I proposed something similar during contract negotiations and the district’s chief business officer, Tom Hudson, wanted no part of it,” Stovall said. “They have not said a word about this to me, but as we all know, communication is not their strong point.”

Driver shortage hits high note 

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.

JCPS has a total of 893 bus routes – down from 964 routes last year – and 896 drivers, but around 20 drivers are out on medical leave and an additional 7-10 percent that call in sick each day.

“We start each day down 20 drivers and that’s before anyone else calls out sick,” he said. “We’ve combined routes, doubled routes. We have supervisors at our bus compounds pulling out miracles every morning. No one wants to cancel bus routes, it is not an easy decision to make. We are doing everything we can to get every kid to school each day.”

The district’s dilemma with the bus driver shortage and absences hit a high note on Friday when 12 bus routes were canceled; on Thursday, 11 bus routes to Breckinridge Metro High School, Minor Daniels Academy, Westport Teenage Pregnant Program and South Park Teenage Pregnant Program were canceled.

Officials fear an even bigger problem on Friday, with a large number of drivers who have requested vacation time and a home University of Louisville football game.

“We can trend our data pretty well,” Raisor said, adding that the district tracks absences and can predict which days may be more troublesome than others.

Earlier this week, Raisor sent out an email request to principals and other departments, listing employees who already have a commercial driver’s license and are certified to drive a bus, asking if they would be willing to pick up a morning or afternoon bus route.

“Could you please speak to these employees and see if they are willing to earn overtime pay for this service?” the email states. “I know that it might cause an inconvenience for your school, and would not ask if we were not at this juncture. I will also work with my colleagues to assist in any gaps that your employee’s absence may cause.”

Employees at the elementary school level are being asked to pick up morning bus routes, while those at the middle and high school level are being asked to pick up afternoon routes. In addition, those employees who do not work in the classroom are being asked to pick up either one or both routes.

The letter states all employees who take a bus route will be paid overtime above their normal 8-hour pay.

It 'feels like a slap in the face'

The shortage of drivers and canceled routes has left students like Haley Gordon demanding answers.

The 17-year-old senior at Westport TAPP was informed Thursday afternoon that she would not have transportation to or from school on Friday, leaving Gordon and her two-year-old daughter without any options.

"I live an hour away from school and my mom works during the day, so I have no other way to get to school," she told WDRB.

Gordon, who lives an hour away from Westport TAPP – a school she has attended since she was a sophomore, says it “feels like a slap in the face.”

“I worry that they don't think we matter because it's an alternative school,” she said. “Fridays are a big day for us, we have tests in almost every subject. I make every effort to be in school each day – it’s important for me to be there so that I can finish my senior year and graduate.”

Stovall says the district has not done enough to keep and retain drivers, saying that problems with student behavior that started four years ago needs to be addressed.

"When you're called an 'M-fer' and anything and everything down the road -- stuff spit at you, thrown at you, or threatened by a parent at a child's at a bus stop because you wrote a disciplinary action against that child -- a lot of drivers say, 'I don't need this,' and they pack up and leave," Stovall said.

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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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