In a historically tight labor market — and amid continuing resignations of system staff — Asheville City Schools still needs to fill about 50 positions for the school year that starts Monday, Aug. 29. The most acute shortages, administrators say, are among bus drivers and custodians.
With only 18 of 29 ACS bus routes staffed to roll, some of the system’s youngest students may need to board the bus as early as 6:45 a.m. Those children could arrive at school up to an hour before classes begin, giving their drivers time to complete another route. (During that time, breakfast will be available for the early birds, along with other supportive services and supervision, according to the district.)
Drivers could find themselves ferrying two or three loads of students every morning and afternoon. And parents could discover that requests for transportation to after-school care can’t be accommodated, at least in the early weeks of the new school year.
“We are behind in our student assignments,” April Dockery, the district’s operations executive, told the Asheville City Board of Education on Aug. 1. She cited an ongoing exodus of bus drivers and difficulty attracting licensed replacements.
“We want our families and our staff to know it’s going to be a rough start,” she continued. “We will have some gaps.”
Dockery also noted some improvements for bus transportation, such as new GPS capabilities that track the location of each bus in real time, onboard safety cameras and a dispatch system that allows drivers and central office staff to communicate directly. Rolling out soon is the Here Comes the Bus app, which will tell caregivers “the location of your child’s school bus on a smartphone, tablet or personal computer,” according to the company’s website.
Prior to July 1, Asheville City Schools bus drivers received their paychecks through Buncombe County Schools’ payroll department. The city district now runs its own transportation department and directly pays its staff.
Amanda Rigsby, the ACS transportation operations coordinator, told the school board that change contributed to the current driver staffing crisis. “To have made that decision during a national bus driver shortage — we probably should have put it off,” she added.
Board Chair James Carter expressed hope that parents would be understanding and “very gracious” as the system works through the transition’s challenges.
Buncombe’s school bus driver crunch is less severe than the city’s. According to Jeremy Stowe, the county schools’ transportation director, 18 of that district’s 250 routes lacked a driver as of Aug. 9. Both systems have raised driver pay to similar levels and instituted programs that allow candidates to earn while going through the licensing process, which can take up to two months.
Asheville City Schools is offering a $1,500 retention bonus to drivers, with half of the amount paid after the first month of employment and half paid after the sixth month of employment. The county schools do not offer such a bonus, according to Stowe.
Like bus drivers, school custodians are hard to find these days. The Asheville school board decided Aug. 8 to use contract custodial workers at Asheville High School and redeploy three AHS custodians to fill vacancies at district elementary schools. Even with the contractor’s reinforcements, 5 1/2 custodial positions remain unstaffed.
Mark Dickerson, who leads the district’s human resources department, told Xpress Aug. 8 he wasn’t able to provide an exact number of vacancies for teachers and other instructional staff. That’s because current staff members continue to resign even as the district adds new teachers, he explained.
Some new hires in the pipeline decide not to come to Asheville after receiving offers from other districts and states. The city’s cost of living, along with North Carolina’s comparatively low teacher salaries, contribute to the challenge, Dickerson said.
“I can’t stress enough that we are really in need of teachers,” Tanya Presha, student services coordinator for ACS, told the school board in an Aug. 1 enrollment update. “We have the students; we need the teachers so it doesn’t affect our class sizes.”
The only out-of-district students being accepted are fourth and fifth graders due to staffing constraints, she said. And first grade enrollments are “through the roof” after many parents delayed their young children’s start in school due to COVID-19, added Jim Causby, interim superintendent.
Total enrollment as of Aug. 1 stood at 4,173 students, close to the previous school year’s enrollment, Presha said.
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