ROGERSVILLE — For the first time in a long time, the Hawkins County Board of Education is up to full staff on school bus drivers, a feat that can be attributed to a series of incentives approved over the past few years.
Four years ago, the beginning salary for drivers was only $57 per day, and it was very difficult to recruit new drivers. The school transportation department would find itself with as many as 10 vacancies at a time.
Bus drivers made it clear to the BOE at the time that pay and health benefits were the main problem, and the board vowed to do something about it.
During Tuesday’s meeting of the county commission’s Budget Committee, Director of Schools Matt Hixson touted a new retiree incentive program implemented this school year as the latest in a series of changes that have brought more school bus drivers into Hawkins County.
The Budget Committee voted Tuesday to recommend approval of a $16,551 budget amendment in the school transportation budget to cover the cost of retired school bus drivers returning as substitute drivers.
“We have four or five who are consistently working with us now since this redo of our salary schedule,” Hixson told the committee. “The incentive for retired drivers has helped a ton. We had two or three prior to this, and they certainly appreciated the incentives to continue working with us after retirement, even part-time employment. Now we have two or three additional since we invoked the incentive.”
Hixson added, “We are fully staffed as of last week for the first time this year for bus drivers, so our retired bus drivers have been a huge godsend for us, covering routes when there have been illnesses or vacancies. We had two vacancies up until last week.”
The system currently has 92 drivers, including subs, and 89 routes.
Hixson said the retiree incentive meets the guidelines of what the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System allows regarding the percentage of base pay that the school system is allowed to pay retirees in each successive year of returning employment.
“It’s a decent increase over the old retiree rate,” Hixson said.
Among the other previous bus driver incentives was allowing them to receive health insurance benefits after completing one year of employment, instead of the previous rule of two years.
There was also a gradual pay raise implemented from the starting pay of $57 per day four years ago to starting pay at $67.50 for the 2019-20 school year. In 2020-21, beginning pay will increase to $70 per day, with top pay after 20 years at $90.
“Because of some of the incentives that have gone through the board and the commission, we’ve actually lured some from Sullivan County and some from Kingsport, who live closer to us, coming down to drive,” Hixson told the Budget Committee. “We’re doing very, very well, knock on wood, and hopefully it continues. I think this will pay off for us in the long run.”