Mesa Public Schools bought 150 new buses for the new school year, thanks to voter approval of a bond issue last November.
But 50 can’t be used yet because the district has no one to drive them.
Although bus driver shortages are plaguing districts across the East Valley, Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson said it’s important to fill these roles as soon as possible.
Not only is it crucial for ensuring students make it to school on time, but filling the jobs eases the burden on existing drivers, who have to cover multiple bus routes, he said.
“Right now, most of our drivers we’re dealing with are driving full time plus overtime,” Thompson said of what are normally part-time positions.
The district has changed the start and end times at almost all of its schools — with some starting as early as 7:30 a.m. — to compensate for the shortage.
Most times, though, have only been adjusted by 10 to 15 minutes.
“We have taken start times and switched to a three-tiered system,” Thompson said. “Past schedules meant most drivers could deliver only to two schools because of the school times.”
“Having less people delivering more kids has helped with the shortage,” he continued.
While bus driver shortages in Arizona districts are not new, Thompson said it’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause for the deficit.
“Right now, there is a national bus driver shortage — it’s not unique to Mesa or even to Arizona,” he said. “This is happening across the country and there is a lot of speculation.”
Competition from the other districts is one factor, Thompson explained.
Meeting the requirements of the 2016 voter-approved minimum wage referendum is another.
MPS has increased drivers’ pay by $1.50 this year, but they still only earn slightly above minimum wage.
“The primary thing for us is that the minimum wage increase is making it hard for us to maintain a minimum wage for our classified employees, such as bus drivers and cafeteria workers,” he previously told the East Valley Tribune.
Come January, the minimum wage will increase to $12 per hour.
The only way for the district to attract future bus drivers, Thompson expressed, is to pass a 15 percent budget override this November.
“Without the override, it would be extremely difficult for us to make any serious adjustments to the hourly rate we’re paying our drivers,” he said.
“The override is our only chance to be competitive with our hourly rate. Ours is anywhere from a dollar to two dollars below many of the districts around us — but those districts also have 15 percent overrides and we only have 10.”
MPS has been operating under a 10 percent budget override since 1995, but needs an additional 5 percent to stay afloat.
So it will ask voters to approve the override in November — a year after it was sunk by voters at the same time its bond issue passed.
The override would provide $54 million per year for the next five years, and then phase down by one-third each in the sixth and seventh years.
The additional cost to property owners would equal $5.17 per month, or $62 per year, per $100,000 of assessed valuation.
Thompson attributes last year’s the failure — the first in Mesa since the first override was approved in 1995 — to confusing ballot language.
The override election lost by about 2,600 votes.
If the budget increase does not pass this time around, the district must cut $37 million from the budget over the next three years — a serious blow to not only bus drivers’ salary, but employees across the board.
“At this point the override not passing [in last year’s election] has not impacted us yet,” said Thompson. “But if we’re not successful this coming November, we will be implementing a one third of the overall override cut, which is about a $12.5 million cut over three years.”
Overall, Thompson said the community has been “understanding” of the district’s efforts to accommodate the bus driver shortage — which often becomes more acute in a good economy, when people can find better paying jobs.
But he encourages people to apply to be bus drivers because it is meaningful work.
“While the wages aren’t as competitive as we’d like them to be, we still have a lot of people driving for us and they find a great satisfaction about being a part of kids’ lives,” Thompson said.
“They have a big influence on a kid’s day,” he continued. “I don’t think people understand the job satisfaction they get from being a big part of kids’ lives and contributing to the education of kids throughout the community.”
The override election will take place on Nov. 5 and is a mail-ballot only. Voters must be registered by Oct. 9.