Tallapoosa County School System bus driver starting base pay is lower than the starting salaries of other drivers in Clay, Elmore, Coosa and Lee counties’ school systems and Alexander City Schools. It is something county school superintendent Joe Windle said the system is addressing.
Tallapoosa County approved raising bus driver pay by $1,000 a year in June in addition to a 4% pay raise from the state, according to Windle. It has not gone into effect yet. County drivers are also given a $200 bonus every nine weeks if they don’t miss more than a day.
Starting pay for Tallapoosa County drivers depends on route length. Base pay for a starting driver on a long route, which is 75 miles or longer, is $11,513.76; a short route, which is zero to 35 miles, is $8,568; and a regular route, which is 36 to 75 miles, is $10,314.93, according to transportation director Len Carter.
Elmore County Schools bus drivers’ starting yearly salaries for four hours a day are $14,229 and top out at $16,576. A bus driver who does six hours starts at $21,350 and ends at $24,284, according to the system’s salary schedule.
Coosa County bus drivers’ starting salaries are $14,201 and top off at $15,240, according to Coosa County’s salary schedule.
Clay County bus drivers starting salaries with 0-39 miles per day driven are $13,165 and top out at $15,105. Starting salary for zero to two years experience but 120-129 miles driven is $14,287 and 21 years and up and 120-129 miles is $16,229, according to Clay County’s salary schedule.
Lee County bus drivers starting salary is $14,173 and tops off at $17,744, according to its salary schedule.
Unlike Tallapoosa County school bus drivers, Alexander City’s drivers are paid hourly.
Base pay for new drivers for the 2019-20 fiscal year is $19.39 cents an hour or $14,114 a year, according to Alexander City Schools director of transportation Keith Lashley. Base pay tops out at $20.77 an hour or $15,117 a year.
Alexander City bus drivers drive four hours a day for about 182 days a year, according to the school system’s salary schedule.
“All the bus drivers get full benefits with healthcare, retirement and with the state’s portion that they match along with the insurance allotment,” Lashley said. “That’s like another $1,000 a month with benefits.”
Tallapoosa County and Alexander City School bus drivers work about four hours a day and although they don’t make a lot of money, they receive benefits such as healthcare and retirement.
The Alabama Department of Education doesn’t have a salary schedule for bus drivers but does provide guidelines for salaries it will fund, according to director of communications Dr. Michael Sibley.
“The local school systems determine bus driver pay within the minimum and maximums that we will fund,” Sibley said. “We fund those school systems based on the salaries that they pay.”
Tallapoosa County has 46 regular routes and three daily routes to the Edward Bell Career Tech Center.
Rep. Ed Oliver (R-Dadeville) said the state’s legislature is not authoring or in charge of bus driver pay currently, but he is willing to help drivers in any way he can. Oliver said he was interested after reading Tallapoosa County bus driver John Ford’s letter to the editor published in The Outlook from Aug. 27 on pay.
“I will be delighted to help the bus drivers in any way that I can,” Oliver said. “I really have not talked to anyone in great detail about it except John Ford.”
Ford began driving in 2014. He keeps driving despite low pay because part of being a bus driver means teaching students social graces.
“I was startled that most of the kids didn’t know how to greet me when I said, ‘Good morning. How are you?’” Ford said. “And I learned through recertification class (the summer I started) that we were expected to teach social graces as part of our job description. And that part of my job incentivizes me to get up at 4:30 a.m. and drive eight loads of students each day at the age of 73.”
Windle said the school system had been one of the historically lower paying systems. Windle said the school system first had to deal with alleviating its financial system before it could think about raising bus drivers’ pay.
“The first priority for digging out (of a financial hole) was to get one month’s operating expense and reserve,” Windle said. “We’ve done that now and we’ve had 2½ months in reserve, and once we did some emergency work that had to be done with maintenance that had to be deferred, we can start addressing some of our salary structures. We base our salary structure on the state salary matrix.”
It is now being addressed, Windle said.
“We couldn’t compete to keep drivers but right now the board was aware of that and Mr. Windle, the superintendent, was aware of it and they’ve addressed it,” Carter said. “We appreciate the board and Mr. Windle for working toward getting more money for the drivers and they have addressed it.”
Tallapoosa County Schools chief schools financial officer Tommy Thweatt said at Monday’s school board meeting the transportation department is having “the best year ever” and is getting $1,900,651 for the 2019-20 fiscal year budget.
The Tallapoosa County School System reimburses drivers for getting licenses and background checks, according to Carter.
Most of the Tallapoosa County bus drivers have another part-time job during the day, Carter said.
“A lot of them have jobs in between their coming here running their route and then go to the job and some are self-employed and they’ll be back in here at 2:30 p.m. to get ready to run the evening route,” Carter said.
Unlike paying based on route length, Lashley tries to keep Alexander City bus driver routes of different lengths even for drivers so they’re driving the same hours.
“The people who have a long route in the afternoon would have a short one in the morning, so that it equals out so that everyone is in their four hours,” Lashley said.
Alexander City Schools superintendent Dr. Keith Lankford said bus drivers endure a lot every day. In the first few days of this school year, a bus engine caught fire and driver Terrance Whetstone evacuated students from the bus and followed procedures.
“(Whetstone) works for us as a bus driver and he gains great benefits from us but he has a second job,” Lankford said. “The hours are conducive to somebody who wants to work a second job or somebody who has retired from other things they can also come pick up a job.”
The Alexander City School System has 24 drivers and needs more to have substitutes, according to Lashley.
“We see every day in every single school system where bus drivers are needed,” Lankford said. “I told somebody else, ‘Math teachers (jobs’) are difficult and the science teachers are difficult but bus drivers are equally difficult.’”
Anyone interested in driving for the Alexander City School System should contact the front office at 256-234-8600. To contact the Tallapoosa County School System to drive, call 256-825-0746.