PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — It's hard to believe, but we are just a month away from the start of the new school year.
The School District of Palm Beach County is staffing up its transportation department after struggling through a nationwide bus driver shortage over the past few years, along with trouble with too many routes.
With past transportation trouble in the rearview mirror, Palm Beach County leaders said they are in a better position this year to start the school year, but they still need more drivers.
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"I like it because of the kids. I love the kids," said Cassandra Bellamy, a school bus driver of more than 30 years.
Bellamy is driven by passion.
"I'm real patient. Whatever I need to calm them down and stuff. I try to talk to them and listen to their little problems and stuff, too. I love them and I pamper them," Bellamy said.
Palm Beach County needs more like Bellamy to help get upwards of 54,000 students to school every day across 475 bus routes.
"We are not totally around the bend because we still have about 80 vacancies that we need to fill," said Shane Searchwell, the director of transportation for the School District of Palm Beach County.
Last school year started with about 100 vacancies.
Searchwell said new hiring incentives are helping. The district recently launched a $5,000 recruitment bonus for drivers who already have the proper license, and $2,500 for those who need the training.
The bonus is awarded after an employee completes a probationary period, and it's steering more people toward the job.
"This has been a blessing for us because, for the first time in months, I have right now about 20 drivers in some form of training. And we'll be ready for the start of school this year," Searchwell said.
Searchwell added that a pay raise last year is keeping more drivers on the job.
According to Salary.com, while the average school bus driver salary falls between $15 and $22 an hour across the country, Palm Beach County was first in the state to raise starting pay to $20 an hour.
"That has helped significantly with retaining the number of drivers we have on board," Searchwell said. "In prior years, drivers would leave for higher wages elsewhere. And this year, I'm not seeing that. I'm seeing our drivers stay on with us and start the new school year with us."
Other transportation employees with a commercial driver's license will fill the gaps while the school district continues to fill jobs.
"The momentum is good and we want to keep that rolling," Searchwell said.
Rolling into a new school year.
"The influence that some of these drivers have with our kids is unbelievable. The interaction they have is unbelievable," Searchwell said.
With drivers like Bellamy.
"I always wanted more kids. But since I'm on the bus, they are like my own kids. So I have to make sure I take care of them and love them just like my own kids," Bellamy said.
You can help the transportation process by registering your ride if your child plans to take the bus. That helps plan routes and show drivers how many students to expect. You can register by clicking here.
If you're interested in being a school bus driver in the School District of Palm Beach County, click here.