Buses at some North Charleston and Mount Pleasant schools are running chronically late this school year as the Charleston County School District faces an ongoing driver shortage.
Students have missed hundreds of hours of class time as a result. Large schools, including Wando High, Stall High and Cario Middle were among the hardest hit, according to the district's monthly transportation reports.
While most students are still getting to school on time, some are missing out on the first hour of class as drivers take on extra routes and arrive to school late.
"I definitely don’t want to leave them waiting on the side of the road," said Jeff Scott, executive director of transportation for the school district.
While traffic and mechanical breakdowns are sometimes to blame, a lack of drivers caused more than half of the lost instructional hours district-wide in December.
Drivers do not work directly for the district but are hired by Durham School Services, a national company that has the contract to provide transportation services for about $19 million a year.
Durham currently has 351 drivers covering 364 routes, according to Scott. Under the terms of its contract, Durham must not only provide one driver per route but also supply a "bench" of backup drivers amounting to 10 percent of the number of routes. Durham has not met that requirement since at least August 2018.
The district dealt with a similar problem in 2016 when parents flooded the district office with calls about late and overcrowded buses. Exercising a clause in its contract, the district started withholding 10 percent of its monthly payments to Durham until the company provided "consistent and reliable service."
This time around, the district is once again withholding funds — and it's also reconsidering its contract with Durham, which ends June 30, 2021.
At its December meeting, the school board formed a committee to examine the contract and look at options for the future.
Kevin Hollinshead, who chairs the committee, said he wants to identify the root problems of the shortage before making contract changes. Other districts are experiencing driver shortages whether they work with Durham or not, and bus drivers are generally harder to hire during a booming economy. New drivers make $15 an hour in Charleston County.
"If you bring another company in, they're going to confront the same issues if you don’t do the study now," Hollinshead said.
In researching the problem, Scott said he traced the district's bus woes back more than 20 years.
South Carolina schools were among the last in the country to stop hiring 16- and 17-year-old students as school bus drivers, only abandoning the practice after the U.S. Labor Department ordered them to stop in 1988. In Charleston County and elsewhere, school leaders scrambled to hire new drivers.
"The district had a huge problem finding adult drivers," Scott said.
Frustrated in its recruiting efforts, the district decided to hire a transportation contractor for the first time in 1997. It has since issued contracts to Laidlaw Bus Services, First Student Inc. and now Durham.
Driver shortages have been a recurring problem ever since, Scott said.
A Durham spokesperson did not respond to an email request for comment Wednesday.