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Shortage in school bus drivers leads to pay raise in Buffalo

School bus drivers in Buffalo are getting a raise, and that may be the answer to the driver shortage that’s causing headaches for parents and students this year.

First Student, the transportation provider for the Buffalo Public Schools, announced on Wednesday steps to retain and attract commercial drivers, including a 16% increase in the hourly wage for those starting out with the company.

That was the response after First Student President Paul Osland met with Superintendent Kriner Cash and his staff to discuss the transportation problems in the district this year, including kids getting picked up and dropped off late, or being dropped off at the wrong stop. Parent advocates held a press conference last week to lambast the company's performance.

The contractor blamed a shortage of drivers – both here and nationwide – but told the district it would take aggressive action to improve service.

That action now includes:

• Bringing in 15 drivers from outside the area to meet the shortage in Buffalo.

• Increasing, immediately, a driver's starting pay to $19.07 an hour, up from $16.40.

• Paying experienced drivers $21.75 an hour, up 3.4%.

• Signing bonuses of $3,000 for professional drivers and $500 for drivers with no experience. Employees also will receive anywhere from $500 to $1,500 in bonuses for referrals.

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In addition, the company will provide an elevated series of wage increases starting in the 2020-21 school year.

“This has the full focus of First Student," Area General Manager Sean McCabe said in a prepared statement. "We are confident this five-step action plan will improve transportation each day until we reach the level of service we all expect.”

First Student runs 617 routes each morning and afternoon in Buffalo, but on average five to 10 of them won’t have a driver, forcing other drivers to double up on routes, according to the company.

“We know that our service to this point in the school year is not what the community expects of us – nor is it what we expect of ourselves,” McCabe said.

The two sides had a good meeting Wednesday, when the district stressed that the problems were unacceptable, particularly as the schools head into the colder months, said James Weimer, the district’s chief operating officer.

First Student would be absorbing the cost of the driver raises and bonuses, Weimer said.

“I would say we’re happy with their response, but we’re going to track it and we’re going to make sure there’s progress moving forward,” Weimer said.

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