While Knox County has been struggling with a shortage of school bus drivers, Loudon County also has been scrambling to cover school bus routes following the recent departure of several longtime local contractors.
Schools director Jason Vance confirmed three local bus contractors retired from the business, forcing the school system to look out of county for new contractors.
“It was initially our preference to hire contractors from within the county. However, it was challenging to fill that task,” Vance said. Vance said it’s getting harder to find bus drivers. He said he’s seen a number of ads for drivers in other counties. “Ultimately, I think it comes down to people being nervous about liability,” he said.
A Dec. 2 school bus crash in Knox County killed two children and a teacher’s aide and Knox Schools have put several measures in place aiming to improve safety.
The Loudon bus drivers/contactors that retired included Vonnie Myers, Scott Franks, and Delmar Davis, Vance said.
Franks ran six routes for the county. In February one of his buses, driven by Larry Harbin, was involved in an accident with an SUV in which the driver of the SUV was killed. Both Franks and Harbin have been named in a lawsuit filed by the family of Cynthia Montooth, driver of the SUV.
Contractor Mark Costner was able to pick up one of Franks’ routes and Tim Davis picked up one route as well. This left four of Franks’ routes open. The county tried to get its other contractors to pick up these routes but did not have any offers, Vance said.
“Therefore, we worked out a deal with a Knoxville contractor, Bill Mead, to pick up the three routes from Vonnie Myers and the four routes from Scott Franks,” he said.
This left four routes still open in Greenback. Again, there were no in-county takers for these routes. The county was able to sign up Brad Long and Vann Darnell of Huffman Buses, a Blount County contractor, to pick up these four routes.
School board member Bobby Johnson Jr. said drivers in Loudon didn’t want to take rural routes such as those in Greenback, so it was necessary to offer package deals with some of the better routes in Lenoir City.
Johnson said finding contractors is more difficult, in part, because operating expenses are increasing, including workman’s compensation, which used to be paid by the county but which is now the contractors’ responsibility.
Also, the county has been offering one-year contracts when most contractors would like longer contracts up to four years, he said. “They want to be able to plan for their needs like new equipment and maintenance, farther in advance.”
In recent months the school board has discussed creating its own bus service but declined because of the cost of equipment and responsibility for training, maintenance and scheduling.
Contractor Vonnie Myers said he retired after 28 years with Loudon County because at age 76, he felt he was getting too old. “I’ve always enjoyed the business and the children,” he said. The job of a driver requires taking on a lot of liability for low pay, he said. “Drivers read in the papers about liability. It’s hard to find someone who wants to take on that liability for such low pay,” he said. Average salary per hour works out to about $17.50, he said.
“It’s a good job for a housewife with school-age children, but it’s not the kind of job that you can support a family on,” he said.
Operating the bus business comes with its own responsibilities, including hiring and training drivers and dealing with Department of Transportation rules, he said. It can take 8 to 12 weeks to get a driver licensed and approved, he said. A new bus costs between $80,000 and $100,000.