In the parking lot at East Cary Middle School, bus driver Auh-murel Wright walks down the aisle of her bus between rows of empty seats, checking the alarms and the emergency exits. She does this before each trip to make sure her ride is safe. And she knows the exact minute she can expect the first students to climb aboard—2:13 p.m.
"When it comes to being on time I’m very, very strict about that," she laughed. "And my kids know that."
Wright loves driving kids to and from school. But there is one thing lacking—the pay. She started out at just under $12 an hour. Now, after ten years on the job, she’s making just $13.75 an hour. That puts her well below the federal poverty level for her family of three.
"I feel like it’s not fair," she said. "As long as I’ve been here, I feel like at least somewhat of a raise every year would be good, especially with me having two kids and having them on my health insurance."
About a quarter of Wright's monthly pay goes to her family health plan, leaving her with less than $1,000 a month to pay for rent, utilities and food for herself and her two girls. That’s a tough task to manage if she didn’t have a partner helping her out financially.
"I’m very thankful because if I didn’t, and I didn’t have a supportive family, I would probably be living in a one-bedroom with two kids," she said.
Wright’s partner is also a bus driver. He has to work a second job in retail to make ends meet for their family.
Poverty-Level Wages For Other School Employees, Too
Bus drivers aren’t the only school employees earning poverty-level wages. More than half of Wake’s non-instructional employees earn less than $15 an hour, even after decades on the job, according to David Neter, chief financial officer for Wake County Schools.
"A teacher assistant who might start out at $11.80 an hour would not hit the $15 an hour rate until they were here 27 years," Neter said.
The salary schedule for school employees is set by the state, so the low wages aren’t unique to Wake County. Some districts, like Wake, supplement the state salaries with local taxes. Wright’s hourly rate of $13.75 includes the local supplement.
Neter said the state usually gives school employees annual raises, but state and local budgets became tighter during the recession, so there were no raises during that time.
"But even after we got out of the recession, and with the growing economy, there were either no or limited increases for these people," he said. "So that’s really created a compression that’s exacerbated what was already in place."
Neter said the pay schedule is not only hard for employees, it also makes it extremely difficult to recruit and retain bus drivers. Wright says she’s sticking around because she enjoys her job, but many of her former colleagues have left for better pay.
"With Wake County, it’s like a revolving door," she said.
Bus driver recruitment is one reason why Wake County School Board Vice-Chair Monika Johnson-Hostler wants to increase the district’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. But she said it’s also about taking care of all the district’s employees.
"And when I say 'take care of,' I mean these people are working, we’re not giving them anything that they’re not earning," she said. "I’m just advocating that we remotely start to touch the conversation of paying them what we think people’s time and efforts are worth, especially the people who are engaged with our most prized possessions, and that’s our children."
Neter estimates getting all employees to a minimum of $15 an hour would cost the district tens of millions of dollars, and would probably take a number of years.
But Johnson-Hostler remains hopeful she can get public support in Wake County for the raise, even though ideally she’d want the state to boost pay for employees in every district.