MNPS School Bus

Metro Nashville Public Schools are in drastic need of bus drivers to transport students to and from their classes. The shortage — one of many throughout the nation — has put a strain on remaining drivers as well as teachers and the families of the students they serve. 

On Oct. 22, roughly 30 bus drivers rallied outside MNPS’ headquarters with a message: They’re understaffed, and the issues that arise because of that are not their fault. 

“I wanted to get the message out to the parents — stop calling on us because the buses are late,” says Pam Battle, an MNPS driver and president of Local 9426, the Nashville branch of the United Steelworkers union that represents school bus drivers. (Battle is not related to Director of Schools Adrienne Battle.) “We will be there, we’re doing the best we can. But [also] to let you know that, if this trend keeps going, [if] drivers are leaving, not staying with transportation, then you may have to provide your child a ride to school.”

Even before COVID-19, MNPS needed more bus drivers than it had — but as with many industries, the pandemic made things worse. Now that students are back in school, drivers are spread thin, running double — sometimes triple — their typical number of routes to pick up slack, fielding comments from angry parents and risking exposure to COVID-19. That’s on top of their normal duties, like keeping dozens of kids safe during their commute, sometimes on highways. Battle says students often misbehave on the bus, too.

Metro Schools spokesperson Sean Braisted tells the Scene that the district needs 72 additional drivers. Battle says they need 200 more. The shortage isn’t affecting only bus drivers; teachers and other staff have been struggling as well, and the district also needs to fill more certificated staff and paraprofessional positions. 

“The bus driver shortage in our district has created a crisis at all levels,” says Sara Duran, organizing director of Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, the city’s teachers union. “Educators are experiencing the added demand on their time to stay after school, waiting for buses that are having to do double and triple routes sometimes up to an hour. In addition, many of our non-classroom educators are being pulled from their duties to wait for late buses in the morning. This has placed an incredible burden on educators that are already being stretched beyond capacity with new curriculum and district initiatives.

“Not only is the bus driver shortage requiring more from educators’ time outside of their assigned duties, but it is also affecting the social emotional health of their students,” Duran continues. “Educators are seeing students who come in late or miss entire class periods struggle to catch back up. We firmly believe that the district must significantly increase pay for our bus drivers so we don’t lose any more, and aggressively make financial investments to fill vacancies.”

MNEA has created a “Reclaim Our Time” petition in collaboration with the steelworkers union and SEIU Local 205, which represents other MNPS support staff. The petition calls for more protocols and transparency surrounding COVID-19; increased pay for substitute teachers, support staff and bus drivers; compensation or decreased expectations for extra work; more support for bus drivers; and “strict adherence” to memorandums of understanding.  

Braisted says the district is exploring a number of different strategies alongside preexisting efforts such as hiring fairs and advertisements. “While we continue to seek out qualified applicants for our open driver positions,” says Braisted, “our transportation team is deploying all available strategies such as attendance bonuses to encourage staff to work full schedules, running A/B routes, combining routes, or having CDL-trained staff in supervisory or other positions go out to serve the needs of students.”

In the meantime, Braisted says, the district is working with schools to communicate bus delays and developing a new pay plan for support staff. 

“I have got to say that my experience this year has to be one of the worst,” says Sandy Boles, a senior at Antioch High School. “The word ‘overcrowding’ does not do justice to the state of the bus. At times one bus driver is responsible for two routes at one time, and the bus is always over its capacity. In many circumstances I was forgotten at my bus stop in the morning and therefore arrived late to school. However, I do not blame the bus drivers for they cannot control their working conditions.”

Not all parents have had issues. Shemeka Reed has two children at Henry C. Maxwell Elementary School, and apart from initial struggles at the beginning of the year, she says transportation has been fine. “I wish every MNPS parent could feel the same level of comfort that I feel with the bus transportation provided by MNPS and Henry Maxwell Elementary,” Reed tells the Scene.

“Parents needed to know about this,” says Battle. “You may have to carpool — I don’t know what type of transportation [you] may have to get for your child, but if that trend continues, then something’s gonna have to be done. And I have no clue what. That’s why it’s [up to] the parents to reach out to the board, their elected officials — to get with Dr. [Adrienne] Battle and see, is there a plan? If your bus drivers keep quitting, is there a plan? How are students going to be transported to and from school?”

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