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Manatee School District faces major transportation challenges

Population spike, driver shortage and a wide geographical coverage area among top problems facing the Manatee district.

Jamie Warrington, the director of transportation for the School District of Manatee County, says he and his staff are thinking of out-of-the-box ways to address transportation challenges.
Jamie Warrington, the director of transportation for the School District of Manatee County, says he and his staff are thinking of out-of-the-box ways to address transportation challenges.
File photo
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In his world, Jamie Warrington, the director of transportation for the School District of Manatee County, said every minute counts.

“I tell people all the time, three extra minutes in my world is the difference of hitting the green light sequence going down Cortez (Road),” he said. “If I can shave 3 minutes off a route, that might be the difference in me getting that bus into school on time.”

On average between Aug. 10 and April 9, 92% of the buses arrived at district high schools in the afternoon prior to the bell. But it wasn't that efficient at the middle school level.

But by the time the middle school students have been released at 4:10 p.m., those average on-time percentages dramatically decrease. When middle school lets out, only 24% of buses are at the middle schools' campuses prior to the bell as they still are completing elementary school routes and navigating traffic. 

Warrington said the department always is looking for ways to address buses being on time to pick up and drop off students but much like other districts, there are challenges Manatee County faces. 

Employee shortage

On paper, Warrington said the district looks like its transportation department is fully staffed when it comes to bus drivers. 

The district has 95 routes and 97 bus drivers to cover those routes, but when drivers are absent or on leave or if a bus breaks down, there aren’t enough drivers to cover the routes. 

Ideally, Warrington would like to have 125 bus drivers to cover 105 routes so there are 20 available drivers to serve as substitutes. 

Buses arrive at Braden River High School well before the bell rings at 2:25 p.m. signaling the end of the school day.
Photo by Liz Ramos

The biggest challenge the district faces with the employee shortage is competitive pay for bus drivers and vehicle maintenance employees. The starting pay for a bus driver in Manatee County is $19.57 per hour.

But the private sector often is offering at a minimum $6 more per hour than the district. 

Warrington said the district always is looking for ways to increase the pay to be more competitive.

The district also is hosting job fairs in the hope of finding more drivers and technicians. 

To make the job more accessible to drivers who live in various parts of the county, the district has started parking some buses at Lakewood Ranch and Parrish Community high schools as well as Lincoln Memorial Middle School so the drivers don't have to drive to the main bus lot to begin their route. The district hopes that makes the job more attractive.

County keeps growing

With Manatee County growing in population, the district has had to keep up with increased transportation needs, especially in the northern and eastern parts of the county. 

Warrington said the district has had to create "doublebacks" where a bus driver will pick up a busload of students who live near the school and take them to one bus stop within two miles away from the school. The driver then returns to the same school to pick up the rest of the students for stops farther away. 

“They’re not ideal because the same students are leaving school 15 minutes late every day while they wait for that bus to take the first group," Warrington said. "But we had to do that, in some cases." 

The district started a pilot program using two white vans to address some transportation needs such as transporting students who are homeless or who have special needs. 

Federal law requires districts to provide transportation for students who are experiencing homelessness. 

As a result, if students who become homeless wish to remain at their originally assigned school but they move from their original address to gain housing, the district must provide transportation. For example, if a student in Bradenton becomes homeless and moves in with grandparents who live in Sarasota, Sarasota County Schools must transport the student to the county line where the School District of Manatee County will have to pick up the student, Warrington said. He said a bus with 30 students could have to divert 20 minutes off route to go pick up the student who is homeless, causing a busload of students to be on the bus longer and potentially be late to school. 

Using the white vans allows the district to easily and more efficiently transport those students as well as students with special needs who need to be picked up directly outside their homes. 

As a result, more buses are getting to school on time, Warrington said. 

The white vans can transport five ambulatory students or three ambulatory students and a student in a wheelchair. The vans are equipped with safety and security features such as cameras. 

Another benefit of using the white vans is drivers are not required to have a Commercial Driver License, which Warrington said can be intimidating to obtain for applicants. Warrington said he’s hopeful the district can attract drivers to the district with the van program. 

Wide coverage area

Florida has a tourism and snowbird season. When more people are visiting Florida, the roads are more clogged, meaning it takes longer for buses to go through their routes. 

One accident on State Road 70 or State Road 64 can significantly delay a bus from getting to its destination, Warrington said. 

Having new parking locations at various schools instead of using a main lot will ensure the buses aren’t having to traverse across the county to get from Robert G. Matzke Support Center to their assigned schools. They won’t have to deal with as much of the large traffic areas such as State Road 70, State Road 64 and where they intersect with Interstate 75. The buses at Parrish Community High will not have to travel across Fort Hamer Bridge.

Joe Szewczyk, a physical education teacher at Myakka City Elementary School, has been driving a bus to help address transportation challenges.
File photo

Warrington said his staff is discussing potential additional schools where more buses can be parked. 

In the 2022-2023 school year, the district started having a bus permanently placed at Myakka City Elementary School to serve the routes in Myakka City. 

Warrington said when the program initially started, there was a lot of interest from community members and staff at the school to be paid to drive the bus, but since interest has dwindled. Physical education teacher Joe Szewczyk has been driving the bus. The district provided the training necessary to become a driver. 

Warrington said he wants to revamp the program this summer with hope of creating more community support to get another three or four drivers to drive in Myakka City. He would also like to start a similar program at Anna Maria Elementary School.



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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