A nationwide shortage of bus drivers might hit the Groveport Madison school district right in the wallet.

A nationwide shortage of bus drivers might hit the Groveport Madison school district right in the wallet.

Joe Faessar, director of development for Petermann LLC, which has provided bus service to the district for nearly 15 years, asked the school board Dec. 14 for an additional $130,000 per year so the company can give its Groveport Madison drivers a pay raise.

His request didn't sit well with board members, who ultimately tabled action on a resolution authorizing the payment until January, but not before considerable discussion.

Several members pointed out a new five-year contract with Petermann went into effect July 1.

"We just negotiated this contract and now you are realizing you have to pay your drivers more and you didn't negotiate a higher wage with us in this new contract?" board member Bryan Shoemaker asked Faessar.

"You're right, we're the experts and we should know this and I agree," Faessar said. "We've done a lot of things of late to increase the package, but it is not enough at this point and it keeps changing."

Superintendent Bruce Hoover said the contract includes a clause that allows both sides to reopen discussions in December in order to address any issues.

Faessar provided a wage chart that shows Groveport Madison's starting hourly pay for bus drivers is $14.50, lower than the starting wages in seven other surrounding districts. According to the chart, Pickerington pays drivers $16.01 an hour, Grove City pays $16.50, Canal Winchester pays $17.16, Hamilton Local pays $18.22, Teays Valley pays $18.36, Columbus City Schools pay $18.50 and Bloom Carroll pays bus drivers $18.55 an hour.

That means, Faessar said, that Groveport Madison is having a hard time attracting and retaining bus drivers. He told the board that 90 percent of school districts nationwide are experiencing a bus-driver shortage, so salaries have to be competitive.

Hoover said the district is receiving many complaints from parents that buses are late picking up and dropping off students.

"We've had a number of conversations with Petermann transportation trying to figure out what the root cause of this is and how we can go about improving the quality of our services so that we can try to prevent these issues or be proactive about this," he said.

Faessar said Petermann increased wages by more than 16 percent this past summer and provided a 3 percent wage increase to all current drivers.

"Every time we make large increases and large steps forward like this, a lot of the surrounding districts go above and beyond that -- this is the environment right now," he said. "We want to continue to run as efficiently as possible for you folks, so we are very mindful of watching the pocketbook because our pocketbook is essentially your pocketbook."

He said Petermann also began offering attendance bonuses, allowed drivers to cash in their paid days off, provided $500 driver referral bonuses to employees and encouraged workers to file for unemployment benefits for the months they do not work in the summer.

Still, Hoover said even though Petermann hired more than 20 additional substitute drivers this summer to take over when there were absences, those drivers "migrated away" to other districts and opportunities to make higher wages.

The additional $130,000 a year the company requested would allow the starting salary for bus drivers to increase to $16.50 an hour. Petermann would provide about $26,000 for perfect-attendance bonuses each month instead of yearly, Faessar said.

Hoover said the additional money would make Groveport Madison "competitive in this local market," but board members still had questions.

Board President Libby Gray said she did not see how the pay increase would solve the issue. Board member Chris Snyder wanted to know what guarantees there are that Petermann would not come back next December asking for more money.

"What's the plan as the trend continues? Are we going to come back at this every year and then have to give you guys another six-figure chunk of change?" Snyder asked.

Faessar said the additional funds Petermann is requesting now should "catch it up for the next four years."