By Lily Mott
Randy Walters begins and ends every work day driving a school bus route. He also drives students for field trips and sports events outside of Rockbridge County.
In between trips, Walters does his official job: Chief Operations Officer at Rockbridge County Public Schools.
“I have been on a bus route every day, morning and afternoon, driving just because we’re so short,” Walters said. “We have three people in this office. We all sub every single day, and that’s our substitute pool.”
Rockbridge County Public Schools has seen a driver shortage for over a decade.
“This year it seems to be worse for us than we’ve had in the past,” Walters said.
Bus drivers aren’t the only staff stretched thin. The school district is also trying to hire more nurses, custodians, food service workers and teachers.
Almost 20 staff members from Rockbridge County High School left their positions for various reasons at the end of last school year. Mike Craft, the high school’s principal, found it difficult to fill the openings.
“This is year 41 for me in education,” Craft said. “I have never seen it so difficult to fill positions.”
Most of the openings are teacher positions. Craft and his staff came up with solutions to fill the staffing void while continuing to offer all the high school’s courses.
“One of the strategies we’ve had to use in order to cover all of our classes is to offer additional period pay for some teachers because we were not able to find qualified candidates,” Craft said.
The county’s Chief Business Officer Jason Kirby predicts that his recruiting efforts will be nonstop.
“It was mainly a February to June job before.” Kirby said. “We need to be recruiting constantly, and we need to be planning further ahead for our openings.”
Family illness, retirement benefits and burnout from teaching during the pandemic are among the reasons for staff leaving schools in Rockbridge County. Some also left to take higher-paying positions at nearby restaurants and universities.
“Other places, whether it’s fast food or universities or local industries, pay 5, 6, 7 more dollars an hour than what school divisions are able to offer,” Walters said. “So, it’s really hard to compete for employees.”
Bus drivers are paid $20 an hour as a base salary and receive stipends for years of experience and length of their routes. Other employers in Lexington offer similar salaries but also offer better benefits, free meals and flexible scheduling to make their positions more attractive.
Public schools around the country are facing similar challenges.
About half of all public schools reported shortages, according to an August survey from the National Center for Education Statistics. Special education teachers and transportation staff were the toughest jobs to fill.
Walters expects that staffing shortages will only get worse in Rockbridge County.
“Within the next couple years, we’re going to be in crisis mode,” Walters said.