Legislative Committees are Briefed on School Bus Driver Challenges

Today, the House Environment and Transportation and Ways and Means Committees met jointly to address the ongoing school bus driver shortage and challenges to hiring and retention.

As school systems across Maryland continue to grapple with a mounting shortage of school bus drivers, the two legislative committees heard from a variety of experts and staff on the multifaceted issue.

School bus contractors shared concerns on pay, testing

The committees opened with testimony from representatives of school bus contractors — which the majority of Maryland counties use to recruit and employ drivers — and their concerns about pay and benefits. Contractors also talked about the layered difficulties in hiring new drivers, including stringent testing and qualifications. A noted possible solution was increased testing capabilities and streamlining processes at MVAs throughout the state. (Contractor testimony begins around the third minute of the hearing).

MSDE presented on the logistics of school bus transportation and the current state of driver shortages

Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) Director of Pupil Transportation Gabriel Rose also presented for the committees, focussing on the logistics of Maryland’s school bus functionality and the current challenges the State faces. Rose started by explaining that Maryland’s issue is part of a greater, national one at the top-of-minds for many states and school districts. (This presentation starts around 43 minutes).

He then explained the usage and function of school buses locally, noting that around 657,000 Maryland students rely on school bus transportation each year.

After setting the stage on the importance of school bus transportation for Marylanders, he moved into realities of the state’s current shortage. Notably, at the start of the school year, only Kent, Garrett, and Worcester Counties reported that they had a driver assigned to every school bus route in the county. Conditions have continued to decline as various districts experienced “sick outs” on top of existing driver shortages.

Rose also highlighted various efforts the State has undergone to address the driver shorter, including easing testing and qualifications, floating the use of ARPA funding to address fiscal needs, and sharing best practices between the State and local school districts.

Other topics of discussion included establishing and maintaining school bus routes (which have been impacted by the driver shortage) and a growing nationwide trend of owning and operating electric school bus vehicles.

The MVA presented on driver testing and qualifications

Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) Administrator Chrissy Nizer explained a bit about the testing and driving qualifications for school bus drivers and how the MVA has worked to streamline processes for hiring. She noted that MVA sent out more than 88,000 letters last week to CDL drivers encouraging them to apply to be school bus drivers. She also said that Maryland is one of three states piloting a new, streamlined CDL testing process that the MVA hopes to eventually expand. (The MVA presentation starts around 55 minutes).

LEAs shared their experiences with the school bus driver shortage

Additionally, the committees heard from local education agencies (LEAs) about other compounding issues exacerbating the school bus driver shortage. Factors discussed included supply chain issues and challenges procuring school buses, the evolving transportation needs of public education during COVID, and considerations about student safety in transportation and bussing and how they relate to the driver shortage and any measures to abbreviate the hiring process. LEAs also emphasized that fiscal challenges relating to school bussing that existed prior to COVID were exacerbated by the pandemic. (This portion of the hearing starts around one hour, ten minutes).

Participants discussed funding and contracting 

Notably, Environment and Transportation Committee Chairman Kumar Barve floated the idea of shifting school bus contracting from a standard cost of goods model to one that includes “cost plus contracts” to address financial burdens expressed by the school bus contractors. This model would take into account inflation and rising costs of goods and services associated with bussing, such as shifting costs in bus maintenance and oil. (This conversation starts around one hour, twenty minutes).

The idea begs the question of who would fund such an increase of what would ultimately be a larger fiscal obligation — the State or Counties — and how it would impact other educational fiscal obligations. Chairman Barve floated the idea of the State doing so, but there are no current plans to pursue such a contracting change.

Stay tuned for more updates on the school bus driver shortage and any potential legislative fixes from the General Assembly.

Useful links:

Prior Conduit Street coverage on the school bus driver shortage: