'They knew they had to make it right': More, better-paid school bus drivers solve years of problems

Mar 12, 2020

Buffalo's school bus situation has apparently improved a lot since a summit in October, helped along by some hefty pay raises by First Student.

The school bus situation has been complicated for years. The problems include having enough drivers to get students to and from school every day, while dodging drivers who ignore the slashing red lights of a stop for students.

Albany has allowed cameras to do something about those drivers. First Student and the school system say the driver situation has eased a lot, with 94 new drivers and 55 more in training.

Western New York General Manager Sean McCabe said there is a national shortage of drivers and more money helped, starting with $1 million in October.

"That was another 17% increase. That kicked into of this year. That was the pivot point," he said. "That was when things started to turn for Rob and I and our big team of recruiters and trainers and training center managers and location managers, and we started to gain some ground on attrition and stabilizing our workforce."

The company has raised pay substantially and under a union contract will raise more. Pay will top out in two years at $26 an hour.

Schools Transportation Director Al Diamico says things are pretty good.

"Every single bus is being covered. There are times when a driver oversleeps and we might make a mistake, but, ultimately, they are all over us," he said. "That company made a huge commitment to Buffalo. They threw $1million at their driver wages to get folks in this year, because the contract that they bid on doesn't start until next year, and they knew they had to make it right."

Comments came during a transportation forum Wednesday evening at the Merriweather Library was led by the Buffalo Parent-Teacher Organization. The BPTO said this event focused on First Student, which carries elementary school kids, because the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which carried high school students, didn't want to appear. BPTO leaders say there will be pressure on that agency over service to high school students.

BPTO Co-Chair Rachel Fix Dominguez said it is very complicated, as 618 school bus routes sprawl across more than 40 square miles of land.

"We transport 30,000 BPS children across that city on both the First Student buses as well as the NFTA buses every day and we do so through inclement weather," Dominguez said. "We do so when the roads are icy and children, by and large, are getting to and from school safely and that is really the ultimate point."