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Manatee School District works to address bus driver shortage

Bus driver shortage causes challenges for Manatee County schools.

Allen Dickson, a bus driver for the School District of Manatee County, says being a bus driver gives him a purpose and allows him to give back to the community.
Allen Dickson, a bus driver for the School District of Manatee County, says being a bus driver gives him a purpose and allows him to give back to the community.
  • East County
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Every weekday, Deanna Howell gets on a school bus to make sure School District of Manatee County students are transported in a safe and timely manner. 

Howell became a bus driver so she could work while also having time off when her children were out of school. 

Seventeen years later, Howell continues to drive students because she loves it. 

Due to a bus driver shortage, Howell and other district drivers have had to expand their routes.

Jamie Warrington, the director of transportation for the School District of Manatee County, says the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the bus driver shortage.
Jamie Warrington, the director of transportation for the School District of Manatee County, says the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the bus driver shortage.

“It’s all in a day’s work to be honest with you,” Howell said. “I do sympathize with the parents, especially ones that have to work. Our intent is to transport these children safely and to make sure they get (to school and home).”

The district needs 155 bus drivers to have a full staff. With a full staff, the district is able to run 155 routes, but with the driver shortage, the district is forced to consolidate routes. Currently the district has 129 routes for its 118 drivers. 

“It’s not ideal because now we have some pretty loaded buses that are going a little bit farther than what they would normally be doing,” said Jamie Warrington, the director of transportation for the School District of Manatee County. “The goal is if we were ever to get back to being fully staffed, we would start putting those routes back together. Our number of routes would increase as our number of drivers increases.”

The driver shortage is compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic as the district also has to deal with drivers calling in sick or testing positive. 

“We don’t have ‘substitute drivers’ that are just sitting there waiting,” Warrington said. 

Even if all drivers are available, the transportation department runs into issues such as drivers being late, buses breaking down or getting stuck in traffic, parents being late to pick up their students and more.

“It’s a constant fluid situation every morning and every afternoon,” Warrington said. 

Addressing the shortage

The driver shortage has been impacting the school district for years. In the past, school districts didn’t have to pay for drivers’ retirement. Once the government decided school districts had to pay for retirement, it became difficult for districts to be able to provide a competitive salary with the new benefits, Warrington said. 

In an attempt to make salaries more competitive with the private sector, the School Board of Manatee County approved salary increases for bus drivers. The starting wage for bus drivers in the 2020-2021 school year was $15.16 per hour. For the 2021-2022 school year, the starting wage has increased to $16.69 per hour. A dollar of the $16.69 comes from the 1-mill ad valorem property tax referendum, which was last approved by voters in November 2021. 

Warrington said the pay increase has made the district the fourth highest pay for bus drivers out of Florida’s 67 school districts. 

Howell said the district’s biggest competition for bus drivers in the area is Manatee School for the Arts and Team Success, which are both charter schools. Charter schools are responsible for providing transportation to its students.

The district also faces competitions from companies such as Amazon, which pays its starting drivers a minimum of $16.50. 

Besides a pay increase, the district is trying other ways to recruit and retain drivers including different ways to show drivers they’re appreciated. The department of transportation started a quarterly newsletter, recognizing bus drivers and bus attendants, popcorn Fridays, gift card giveaways and special events such as a family fun day scheduled for May at G.T. Bray Park. 

“I did meet with a group of folks a couple of weeks ago to brainstorm what we can do to try to help improve the monotony of coming to work,” Warrington said. “I want to acknowledge their hard work, and I want to acknowledge the sacrifices they’re making at home.”

Bus drivers Allen Dickson and Howell said the district needs to work on streamlining the hiring process to help get new drivers. 

Warrington said the district hired a recruiter who has been trying to recruit drivers through websites such as People who apply through websites like still need to apply through the School District of Manatee County. Warrington said the recruiter checks applications every day and sends applicants’ information to the department of transportation. Within 24 hours the applicant is contacted and department of transportation staff can help applicants if they need assistance filling out applications or if they have questions. 

After the applicant is cleared with the background check and fingerprints, the department contacts the applicant within 24 hours to schedule an interview. 

“If you take too long, they’re going to find something else and they’re going to go somewhere else,” Warrington said. “It’s in our best interest to get on it right off the bat, and that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

The transportation department has a new class of drivers starting every two weeks even if there is only one driver in the class. 

Both Howell and Dickson said the district needs to recruit young people to become drivers.

Training new drivers

Becoming a school bus driver is not as simple as grabbing the keys and driving. School District of Manatee County drivers are required to obtain a commercial driver's license. 

Warrington, Howell and Dickson all said the exam to obtain a CDL is not easy. All of them failed the first time they took the test. 

Dickson said drivers have to study for the CDL exam. 

Drivers also go through a three-week training course, learning safety and operation protocols on top of at least 70 hours of pre-service driving where they drive with a trainer. 

Even after drivers are doing routes on their own, Warrington said there still is continual training for drivers.  

“There’s physicals, dexterity tests, random drug and alcohol testing and ongoing training requirements that are all mandated by state law,” Warrington said. 

Warrington said drivers are not in their jobs for the money but for the students. 

“When I came, I needed money, of course. … That for a lot of our people is an issue, but the love for the job keeps them here,” Howell said. “Yes, we can go to Walmart or Amazon, but you don’t have a heart for it. (As a bus driver) no two days are the same. I love children.” 

Dickson became a driver after selling the company he owned for 32 years last March. He’s only been with the district for eight months, but it gives him something to do every day.

“It’s keeping me working, it’s keeping me focused and it’s giving me a purpose in life,” Dickson said. “It’s giving something back to the community. It’s also basically achieving something. Every day you’re out there, you get all your routes and you get the kids to school.”



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