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School districts across the Tampa Bay area continue to fill an ongoing bus driver shortage

Hillsborough County Schools
As students return to school, districts across the Tampa Bay region are still battling a bus driver shortage.

As school districts in the area work to fill bus driver vacancies, some are experiencing a greater shortage than usual. Manatee County needs to fill about 20% of its bus driving staff. Like surrounding districts, Manatee officials hope a wage increase will attract more employees.

As students return to school, districts across the greater Tampa Bay region are still battling a bus driver shortage.

Some district officials reported a greater number of driver vacancies than last year, citing competition from other industries such as manufacturing and logistics and a high unemployment rate — about 3% — for the Tampa -St. Petersburg-Clearwater Metropolitan Statistical Area.

"Most school districts in Florida are struggling, some more than others. The shortage has been significant, but it's not isolated to Florida," said Jamie Warrington, Manatee County School District's director of transportation.

Manatee County is looking to fill about 25 bus driver positions, out of 125 total.

In Hillsborough, the largest school district in the area, vacancies are around 225 out of 837 total.

Schools nationwide are in need of more bus drivers and the extent can vary from district to district. Many have raised wages to combat the shortage.

Manatee County increased its starting hourly pay from $16.69 to $18.14 at the end of last school year.

Pinellas County, last school year, offered a $1,000 sign-on bonus and, in May, raised the hourly starting pay from $15.69 to $19.79, making the district second to Sarasota's $25.

A Hillsborough County spokesperson said the district is currently involved with bargaining with employee union groups, which negotiate wages on behalf of the employees. Pay for Hillsborough bus drivers starts at $16/hour.

Warrington said turnout has improved at the job fairs this school year so far.

"We've recently raised our starting pay. We're still nowhere near where we need to be, but we're at least in the ballpark with our surrounding counties," said Warrington. "I know that's a factor in people's decisions. But I don't know if that's the only reason for it or if people are just at the point of 'I need to get a job.' "

Local and global economic conditions affect wallets

Bob Dewald, a retired Manatee County resident, gigged as an Uber driver for the last eight years. But, lately, he hasn't earned as much as he would like. Rising day-to-day costs are driving him to look for another steady source of income, so he applied for a bus driver position.

"Everything has gone up, seems like, double and triple except for my social security and my retirement, so the pay will help," said Dewald.

Another applicant, Axel Jasiek, said his car-part exporting business has slowed down due to economic conditions in Europe.

"Nobody knows what's coming on and we have the war with Ukraine right now," said Jasiek, "So that's why I'm looking for another job."

Warrington said it's ideal to have a number of full-time substitute drivers in addition to the number of designated drivers for each bus route. To accommodate the shortage, his staff is working longer hours and driving the same route multiple times to pick up kids in separate groups.

Manatee County school officials said they hope to have each route filled within the next two months.

Teacher and other staff shortages continue

Bus drivers are not the only vacancies schools are needing to fill. A shortage of teachers and other support staff, such as cafeteria workers, are also continuing to plague schools.

The staff shortages began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but were exacerbated when schools stopped in-person learning and virtual schooling took a toll on educators, some of whom decided to leave the profession entirely.

In Hillsborough, about 455 teacher positions were open, down from last year's first-day count of 691.

Manatee County also saw the number of teachers increase. The district is looking to fill 59 spots, down from over 100 vacancies last year.

The Florida legislature approved an increase to the average teacher starting salary earlier this year, a move that some educators say puts a crunch on longtime teachers whose salaries are capped.

Michael Barber, Manatee County director of communications, said a variety of factors are contributing to hiring difficulties.

"There's high turnover, teachers are moving. There's just fewer people to fill those jobs now," said Barber.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.