SUMNER COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — A shortage of school bus drivers is impacting many communities in Middle Tennessee.

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, there was a shortage of approximately 650 school bus drivers statewide at the start of this school year. State leader said while most districts are experiencing shortages of some kind, Metro Nashville Public Schools and Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools are two of the larger districts experiencing significant shortages while Dickson County, Sumner County and Tipton County are three medium sized districts that are experiencing notable shortages.

“We’re competing for the same employee that everyone else is – whether that’s in retail or the restaurant industry,” said Sumner County Schools Transportation Director Andrew Grasty. “Even myself – I drove a bus route this morning. We got to get the kids to school every day so that’s our job.”

It’s a job retired law enforcement are also taking up for Sumner County Schools.

“It’s been fun. I enjoy it,” said Tracy Murphy after working as a police officer in California for 25 years before her retirement. “Once you get used to it and you figure out how to maneuver the bus, it’s just not that difficult.”

It’s a family affair for John Fulton and his wife Leslie. Both were retired from law enforcement careers in New York before working as bus drivers for Sumner County Schools.

“It seemed like an opportunity to meet people and socialize and stay young by interacting with kids again,” John said.

It was a similar goal for Murphy as well, but she found the insurance benefits as another big attraction.

“The benefit of this job when you’re retired is you get medical insurance, medical insurance is great and that was actually a huge deciding factor in becoming a bus driver,” Murphy explained.

Both LEOs brought their years of public safety experience to their work behind the wheel.

“Sometimes you have to stop the bus and put the hammer down but for the most part they’re (kids) really good,” Murphy said.

These drivers also build relationships with their students.

“I’ve seen students go from elementary to middle and to high,” Fulton said, adding that he tries to put smiles on their faces when they climb into his bus. “You don’t know what’s happening in their personal lives – they may have had a bad morning. So, you try to make it a little bit better before they walk into school and that puts them in a better frame of mind to learn when they get there.”

According to Grasty, the district’s transportation department is always recruiting bus drivers like other districts in the area, but they’re doing all they can to make sure students and parents don’t see the effects of the shortage.

“We have amazing bus drivers that work to help cover extra routes,” Grasty said.

Metro Nashville Public Schools, at last check, needed 72 drivers to ensure all routes have an assigned driver. Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools still need around 100 additional drivers and substitute drivers to be fully staffed.

Grasty hopes all the benefits like health insurance and a flexible schedule are enticing enough to bring in applicants.

“You get state retirement, you get time off, we stretch the pay over the whole year so when students are out of school Thanksgiving break, Christmas break, summer break, they’re still getting paid,” he explained, adding that the emotional benefits mean so much more. “Just to see the kids every morning, it’s just rewarding. If folks live near Sumner County or in Sumner county, I’d love for them to apply to come work for us but any of our fellow school districts are looking for school bus drivers.”

MNPS released the following statement about its school bus driver shortage:

“We have been experiencing a shortage of bus driver positions, at last count we needed 72 drivers to ensure all routes had an assigned driver, though we have capacity in the budget to exceed that if there were enough applicants. The shortage of bus drivers here at MNPS and at districts around the state and country continues to present a challenge in meeting the transportation needs of our students. District leadership continue to explore strategies for retaining and recruiting drivers to the team. While we continue to seek out qualified applicants for our open driver positions, our transportation team is deploying all available strategies such as running A/B routes, combining routes, or having CDL trained staff in supervisory or other positions go out to serve the needs of students. Our transportation team works closely with schools to address any challenges and notify them of potential delays caused by shortages or traffic so that families can remain informed. As was discussed in during the budget process this year, MNPS is seeking to develop a support employee pay plan over the course of this fiscal year similar to the teacher pay plan enacted in this fiscal year with a market review to ensure our salaries are competitive to retain and recruit talent for the district.”

The problem is also not unique to Middle Tennessee as survey data released in late August from leading national school transportation associations showed that 51% of school districts across the nation described their bus driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate,” while almost 80% of school districts indicated the shortage is getting worse.

“Although we have experienced some level of driver shortages over the past four to five years, the situation has never been as dire as it is this school year,” stated CMCSS Chief Operations Officer Norm Brumblay. “Missing over 30% of our needed driver workforce is having a significant impact on our student transportation services. With that said, I am not settling with this being our ‘new normal.’ We will continue to explore every opportunity within our power to recruit and retain drivers so our students can be transported to and from school safely and on time.”

CMCSS has implemented the following incentives to address the driver shortage:

  • Sign-on bonus of $1,000 for new drivers
  • Referral bonus of $1,000 for current drivers
  • Stipends for driving extra routes at $10.00 per route (this is in addition to regular pay)
  • Performance end-of-year bonus of $600 for drivers who have been employed with CMCSS for 18 months or more

Anyone interested in applying with CMCSS can visit cmcss.net/employment, email Calvin.Holliday@cmcss.net or call 931-358-4230.

People wanting to work with MNPS can apply here: https://mnps.org/careers/drive_with_us

For Sumner County Schools you can visit this link to apply: https://sumnerschools.org/index.php/now-hiring