Bus driver shortage for Hamilton County Schools causing late runs, frustrated parents

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A student gets on a Hamilton County School bus on the first day of school at Soddy Daisy high school on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

Last Thursday, Jenn Piroth's son waited at the bus stop for more than an hour before his bus finally arrived. Unfortunately, this has become a regular occurrence, Piroth said.

Her son lives in Hixson and attends Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, a magnet school.

"He has never, not once, since the beginning of the school year, been to school on time," Piroth, a former school board candidate, said in a phone call.

Hamilton County Schools officials confirmed in an email Tuesday that the district is facing transportation issues affecting 13 routes.

"Several bus routes have been experiencing issues recently with late runs," spokesman Steve Doremus said in the email. "These issues are primarily affecting magnet school transportation."

Doremus said that is because First Student, the bus company with which the district contracts, is short several drivers.

"This shortage has caused the need for us to double the routes," Doremus said. "By doubling routes, buses are required to make additional runs beyond their regularly scheduled routes. These additional runs may result in delays during both the morning and afternoon runs."

The district's contract with First Student is $13 million per year if all routes are run, Doremus said.

The company understands parents are frustrated, First Student spokesman Jay Brock said.

"Our goal is to always transport students in a timely manner," Brock said in an email. "We are having to adjust some bus routes for Hamilton County Schools due to a need for drivers. While this can cause delays, it enables us to provide transportation to as many students as possible. We continue to actively recruit, hire and train new drivers."

Brock said the starting pay for drivers is $20.60 an hour, and the company is offering hiring incentives and sign-on bonuses of up to $3,000.

"Our applicant flow is steady, and we do have a number of candidates in various stages of training," Brock said. "We hope to add them to our workforce in the coming weeks. "

Piroth said late buses are nothing new.

"This happened all of last year," Piroth said, adding that she has contacted her son's school as well as First Student directly on several occasions, but nothing has changed.

Piroth's fiancé, James Earles, is in charge of bus drop-off and pickup duty.

"I personally see that this affects at least two to three dozen kids at this one stop," Earles said in a phone call, adding that he thinks First Student isn't performing its job.

"This is a private company, failing to provide the service that we pay them to provide," Earles said. "It's at a point where it's starting to continue to build up and nobody is doing anything about it."

Hamilton County Schools started contracting with First Student in 2019.

The bid cost nearly $1 million more than the district's previous bus provider, Durham School Services, but former Superintendent Bryan Johnson's administrative team recommended it based on a variety of factors, including safety features and a brand new 185-bus fleet.

Doremus said the district is continuing to work with First Student to address the driver shortage.

"First Student has pulled their office staff to pick up routes and drive buses," Doremus said. "They have also brought in drivers from another school district. We have also asked local contract drivers to assist by covering additional routes."

Brock said those interested in applying to work as a bus driver can do so at workatfirst.com.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.