Her fleet is comprised of big yellow buses, not private cars, but Rappahannock County School Superintendent Shannon Grimsley has one of the same concerns as the coordinators of volunteer driving services.
“A shortage of drivers worries me,” she said. “I worry about when they retire if I’ll be able to replace them. That’s a constant struggle.”
The school district has 17 fulltime and six substitute drivers. Their mean age is 55. Grimsley noted that not long ago the district had to scramble to fill in for three bus drivers affected by a death in the family.
But that’s just one of the challenges that come with managing 16 different routes every school day in a rugged, spacious county like Rappahannock. Riding up and down hills and bouncing along on gravel roads takes a toll on the vehicles, Grimsley acknowledged.
“It’s recommended that you replace your buses every 15 years, but our transportation department says every 10 years because of all the wear and tear,” she said. “And when it’s bad weather, it can be difficult to get buses to the kids. Like on Chester Gap. Almost a third of our population is up there. If VDOT doesn’t clear the roads there in time, we can’t have school, even if it’s just that one section of the county that’s out of commission.”
Slightly fewer than three-quarters of the 851 students at the county’s two schools ride the buses. Just under 40 percent are picked up by six buses serving Chester Gap and Amissville. So, 10 buses are needed to transport kids in the rest of the county. One makes as many as 26 stops, according to Grimsley. She said the routes are scheduled to try to ensure that no student spends more than an hour on a ride. The longest trip is 36 miles, from the Slate Mills area to the school.
The distances in rural counties, she pointed out, can affect school lives in other ways. “Some kids don’t have a way home after athletic events,” she said. “Parents get home later and they don’t want to come back out to the school. For some people, it’s a long drive just to get to us.”
On average, the school bus fleet covers about 924 miles a day. That doesn’t include mileage related to after-school trips to sporting events or extracurricular activities. Through the school year, the buses travel a total of more than 166,000 miles.
That’s a lot of hard miles, which is why Grimsley said that she wants to start setting aside money in the budget to replace one bus a year. In the past, vehicles have been replaced when enough money was available — never a sure thing when a new bus can cost anywhere from $75,000 to $90,000.
Currently, about 8 percent of the budget — or roughly $1.044 million — goes to transportation. Only about 20 percent of the school district’s funding is provided by the state; the rest comes from the county.