School buses parked in the Salem-Keizer School District lot on Hawthorne Avenue (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Hoping to curb a persistent bus driver shortage, the Salem-Keizer School District is raising pay for drivers and other transportation workers.

Starting bus drivers will now earn $17.47 hourly, up from a previous wage of $15.82. The maximum bus driver pay will increase to $22.30 an hour from $20.29.

The increase brings Salem-Keizer more in line with pay offered by neighboring school districts, district human resources director John Beight said.

The human resources department found the average starting pay for nearby districts was $17.01.

Salem-Keizer has struggled with a worsening bus driver shortage for several years. It’s a problem many school districts are facing in part because of a strong economy and the availability of other work.

The district’s shortage has been especially pronounced this school year after school attendance boundary changes necessitated hiring more drivers. An increase of students who are homeless or in foster care and receive special transportation has also contributed to the shortage

New pay rates for Salem-Keizer bus drivers and other transportation workers goes into effect Feb. 16, 2020. (Courtesy/Salem-Keizer School District)

At the start of the school year, the district announced an incentive pay plan giving bonuses to transportation employees after their first year on the job, and at certain employment milestones after. They also gave existing employees bonuses for recruiting new drivers.

But those efforts weren’t enough to staff the transportation department. In October, Superintendent Christy Perry warned the driver shortage was becoming “catastrophic.” About 35 positions were unfilled, and nearly all maintenance and other transportation workers were stepping in to drive bus routes daily, cutting into their time for other work.

The pay increase is expected to cost the district $1.66 million per year, Beight said.

The district hopes some of that cost will be offset by improved driver retention, lowering the need to recruit and train new drivers. Currently, four or five drivers leave the district monthly.

Some of the cost will be covered by state reimbursements.

The district announced an agreement on the wage increase with the Salem-Keizer Association of Education Support Professionals Friday. New pay rates take effect Feb. 16.

Correction: This article previously misstated the current hourly pay for starting drivers.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: 503-575-1241, [email protected]