School buses in black and white
Carolina Journal photo by Maya Reagan

The bus driver problem: Does it have to be this difficult?

How do we solve the shortage of bus drivers?

That’s a question a lot of people are asking these days. Students are spending more time on buses and arriving late to school because over worked bus drivers are driving longer, reconfigured routes.

School districts have tried to increase pay, provide driver and referral bonuses but problems persist.

With the grumbling has come finger pointing and most of it has been directed at state government.

Never ones to let a good crisis go to waste the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and NC Policy Watch have weighed in and called the current problems just part of a GOP- authored crisis to shortchange our public schools..  According to our friends on the Left is more money from the General Assembly.

This is where they are wrong, and they need to redirect their attention.

School districts in North Carolina are sitting on millions in federal Covid aid, much of which could be used to maintain current services and preserve staffing levels.

However, school districts have been unwilling to spend Covid money. Many districts are waiting for lawmakers to approve a state budget to get a clearer picture of what the state will fund and what the districts will need to fund.

What gets lost in all of this is the amount of Covid relief money districts have sitting in bank accounts.

According to the Department of Public Instruction, Wake County has received over $370.9 million in Covid funds. As of 8/31/21, $308.8 million—or 83.2 percent is unspent.

Shouldn’t school board members be asked about why they refuse to spend money allotted for Covid relief?

Wake is not the only county sitting on Covid funds. Since 2020, Charlotte Mecklenburg County Schools has received $528 million in Covid funding. As of August 31st, 2021, the district still had $423.5 million in funds in its account. Likewise in Durham. Since 2020, Durham Public Schools (DPS) has received $72.2 million in Covid funds. As of August 31st, $149.1 million remained unspent in DPS accounts.

I have argued against spending Covid money on personnel costs and additional staffing costs, largely because the federal money runs out and taxpayers are on the hook for subsequent costs. What is different here is the bus driver shortage describes a real emergency that is causing great hardship.

Yes, lawmakers have a role to play here; but so, do school boards. Refusing to spend Covid money on legitimate needs that continue to bring hardship to students, families, and staff are actions for which school board members should be held to account.

Bob Luebke / Senior Fellow, Center for Effective Education | John Locke Foundation