Weeks before the first day of school, Lysnie Steele received an email from Albemarle County Public Schools.
“Despite our ongoing improvement efforts, we regret that we will be unable to provide bus transportation to every student in our school system who needs it,” the note said. Her children were among those who would not get a bus.
Steele was stunned. She works in Richmond most weeks, so she cannot drop and pick her kids up from school.
She lives in the Glenaire neighborhood, which sits just east of Crozet off of Ivy Road. One of her children attends Ivy Elementary School, about three miles from her home, and the other goes to Henley Middle School nearly six miles away. There’s no way her kids could walk to school themselves, she said.
Steele knows of about 30 kids in her neighborhood who will need a ride.
Fortunately, parents in her neighborhood have mobilized to carpool the children to school.
Albemarle County Schools began notifying parents of the route cuts on July 31. A week later, some parents are still finding out. Steele’s children are two of about 1,000 students, according to Albemarle County Schools officials, who will not have a bus ride to school.
Seeing her neighborhood organize is a pleasant sight, but to figure out such a complex problem less than two weeks away from the first day of school — which is Wednesday, Aug. 23 — was difficult. And she worries about how well it will work for the duration of the school year.
“I’ve been pleasantly overwhelmed by the positivity and resilience of my community,” said Steele. “But the fact is, we should not have to be forced into problem solving for the county transportation office.”
Charlottesville Tomorrow tried multiple times to get more information from the district: who these students are, how they were selected, what led to this situation happening just before the school year, and what the district was doing to solve it. No one responded to calls and emails for comment, and Superintendent Matthew Haas declined to answer questions following Thursday’s School Board meeting.
Officials gave some information during the meeting. Rosalyn Schmitt, county school’s chief operations officer, said that the district expects 10 routes to remain open this year. That means those ten routes will not have a designated driver. She did not say which routes, or which neighborhoods.
Schmitt also said that in response to the driver shortage, officials have worked to recruit bus drivers and bus aids, group bus stops, expand walk zones and tighten bus registration for families. They’ve also added more routes to each bus driver’s schedule.
Albemarle schools said they are prioritizing buses for marginalized students, such as students of color, students with disabilities, English language learners and more.
About 90% of Albemarle students, which adds up to approximately 8,600 children, will have a bus this year. Last year, about 6,000 Albemarle students rode the bus daily, said Schmitt on Thursday night.
As of Thursday, the district was short 12 bus drivers.
In an effort to reduce the number of students who have signed up for a bus but don’t actually need one, students who miss 10 consecutive days on the bus will automatically be withdrawn from the bus list, said Schmitt. Bus drivers will track each student who comes onto the bus each day.
“We are actively working on any solutions within our control,” said Schmitt. “Once the school year starts, we will actively be monitoring ridership and consolidating routes wherever possible.”
School Board members implored families who are not in dire need of a bus to unregister their child as it is “causing problems and havoc for everyone.”
“I think we need to have some follow-up calls so that we can try to catch people who weren’t at the meeting, who might not have a solution, who might not even have read that email,” said Katrina Callsen, a board member. Superintendent Haas and Schmitt said they were working on it.
All families that live a certain distance from their child’s school were automatically denied a bus this year and instead placed in “walk zones,” or designated neighborhoods that the district has deemed safe enough for students to walk or bike to school. Prior to this year, only four schools had walkzones. Now, that number is up to nine.
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Elementary students who live up to 1.2 miles from campus and middle and high school students who live up to 2 miles away must walk or find alternate transportation. Though, Charlottesville Tomorrow has spoken with many families who live outside of these “walk zones,” whose children also do not have bus seats, like Steele.
The county, along with many other school districts across the country, has been experiencing a bus driver shortage for years. Albemarle started feeling the effects of it in 2019, according to both school officials and families who spoke to Charlottesville Tomorrow. The next year, the pandemic increased the effects.
Albemarle officials say they’ve tried it all. They’ve held job fairs. They’ve added sign-on bonuses. They even raised the hourly rate to almost $23 an hour. Yet the school system is in the same predicament, if not worse off, than it was last year.
The school district was able to provide buses to every student last year, but they didn’t have enough drivers to get all the kids to school on time. Toward the end of last fall, almost 2,000 kids in the county were getting to school late. About 320 students were arriving at school between 16 minutes to over an hour past the first bell. Sixty-three students of those 320 were getting to school over an hour late, according to data from the district.
Callsen and other board members said they suspect that there is a dip in interest from drivers due to the hourly pay rate. As of now, Albemarle pays at least $22.58 an hour for a bus driver, the highest among area school districts, according to Schmitt. Louisa County Public Schools pays $22.26 an hour, Fluvanna County Public School pays $20 an hour, Nelson County Public Schools at $15.75, and Orange County Public Schools offering $16.65 an hour for its drivers. Charlottesville City Schools has not responded to inquiries about current hourly pay for bus drivers, but as of last October, Charlottesville paid $21.50.
But for some bus drivers in the county, it’s more than the hourly rate. One Albemarle bus driver, who asked to remain anonymous, recently decided to resign from her position. She requested routes that were near where she lived, something she said the district promised to provide, and also promoted as a perk of the job. Yet, less than two weeks before the first day of school, she was offered a route that was a 35 minute drive away from her house.
It’s more than the routes, she said.
She signed on to become a driver in April. Of the eight people she started training with this summer, only three completed the needed coursework. Training “took a lot longer than expected,” she said, because drivers who were farther along on their training, or fully trained themselves, were constantly asked to assist with the newer hirees.
“It seemed as if nothing was prioritized in the beginning and we were being thrown every direction, yet pushed to get our training completed because of the driver shortage,” she said. “You would think if drivers are needed so bad, they would agree to work with employees to keep the ones they do have left.”
The tipping point for her, though, came when she learned that her own child, who attends ACPS, has not been assigned a bus, which means she will need to drive them. She can’t do both.
She isn’t the only one who feels like the district is not treating drivers well. Kellie Washington, a former bus driver for Albemarle schools, said the issue is far bigger than County Schools is leading on. Coming from her experience, and those of current and former Albemarle bus drivers she knows, she’s seen the toll the shortage takes on those in the driver’s seat. She assumes that county officials, specifically the School Board, have not made an effort to talk to bus drivers about the issue.
“Why lie to us?” she said at Thursday’s meeting. “If you know what to do, talk to your bus drivers, find out why they left and find out why they’re not here.”
Out of Washington’s three children, two of them will not have a bus to get to school.
Last fall, the county school system promised they wouldn’t deny a child transportation. To accomplish this without enough drivers, the neighborhoods, or routes, that did not have an assigned bus driver were subjected to “double backs.” Drivers would go on one route, drop off students at one school, then circle back and grab another group of students for that same school right after. That led to the hundreds of students arriving to school late.
Until county schools can figure out the problem, parents are left scrambling. Kira Sullivan, a mother of an eighth grader at Henley Middle School, had a successful year last year with her son’s bus. She didn’t experience a single delay.
Unfortunately, Sullivan won’t be as lucky this year. Days ago she received a notice that her son will not have a bus seat. Despite working from home, she lives too far from her son’s school to drive him each day. It takes 35 minutes to drive from her house to Henley, and it would take an hour and a half just to complete the commute with the addition of the time spent in the dropoff line.
She’s been in some talks with her neighbors about forming a carpool, but nothing is set in stone. Driving her son to and from school each day will cause her to lose out on time with her business and triple her gas budget.
Her options are slim. With school less than two weeks away, Sullivan is at a loss.
“I want to do more, but I don’t know what else to do,” she said, lifting and dropping her arms in defeat.