A STORY ABOUT SOME PRINCE WILLIAM SCHOOLS CHANGING THEIR OPENING AND CLOSING TIMES FOR THE UPCOMING SCHOOL YEAR OMITTED WESTRIDGE ELEMENTARY, WHICH WILL OPEN AT 9 A.M. AND CLOSE AT 3:30 P.M. THE SCHOOL USED TO OPEN AT 8:50 A.M. AND CLOSE AT 3:20 P.M. (PUBLISHED 08/14/99)

Prince William County will juggle the schedules of 16 schools during the upcoming school year, in part to keep bus timetables flexible enough to cover a potential driver shortage.

The adjustments are no more than 25 minutes at the beginning or end of the day. The problem of finding qualified bus drivers continues to vex Prince William, as it has other metro area school systems.

"We're still short, but we're in a better position than we were a month-and-a-half ago," said Associate Superintendent for School Services David Miller.

Last year, 26 driver positions went unfilled. In addition, there was a 10 percent or so daily absentee rate of the 463 regular drivers, forcing supervisors to cover daily shifts.

This year, the school system had to find enough drivers to cover 16 new bus routes as well as making sure enough substitutes were on hand to cover for sick and absent drivers.

"It's a nationwide problem with bus drivers. And it's a demanding job. You have to want to do that, ride with 150 kids behind your back every day," Miller said.

In part, the difficulty in finding bus drivers is the flip side of the booming economy. The unemployment rate in the county is a scant 2.3 percent, compared with 3.2 percent in Virginia and 4.5 percent nationwide.

"Practically everybody who could be working is working," said Bill Vaughan, research manager for the county Economic Development Department.

With such competition, the $11.14-an-hour Prince William bus drivers make in their 5 1/2 hour workday can be easily surpassed by other employers. For instance, Fairfax County schools pay drivers only $10.80 an hour. But Fairfax offers drivers $500 signing bonuses, plus another $500 bounty to drivers who bring in new recruits.

Prince William's unusual demographics also contribute to the problem, Vaughan said. For every resident 65 and older, there are 11 children younger than 16, he said. Retirees would be a natural fit for part-time positions, but in Prince William "there just aren't that many of them around," Vaughan said.

Hiring is also an issue in other school support departments. Serena Suthers, director of food services, said her department is running open interviews every other Monday. Last year, her department operated most of the school year with 20 vacancies in its staff of about 400.

"It seems like we're doing a little bit better, but we still need people," particularly workers who would be willing to fill in as a substitute at a handful of schools if necessary, Suthers said.

Cafeteria workers have traditionally come from the ranks of at-home mothers. But at-home mothers needing work are harder to find, Suthers said. The starting salary for part-time cafeteria workers is $8.54.

Kelly Rice, who helps oversee the school custodians, said he also needs flexible part-time workers, who start at $6 an hour. There are 340 full-time custodians, and the office tries to keep about 34 in a pool of part-time workers who can substitute when needed. For the last few years, the office has been able to keep only about 20 people in that pool. Hiring goes on throughout the school year.

"Support services has tried everything" to bring in new hires, Rice said, from newspaper and cable TV advertisements to fliers. It's still difficult to lure workers away from other similar jobs.

"A lot of people say, well, pay them $10 an hour. You still can't complete with the construction industry that's paying people $12 an hour just to clean up," Rice said.

Rice has been successful in filling vacancies through the informal network maintained among all the school departments.

If someone goes to Suthers looking for a full-time job as a cafeteria worker but none is available, she tells Rice. Often, they're able to work out a deal where the employee works part of the day in the cafeteria and the remaining hours as a custodian.

"We do work together as a team," Rice said.

Prince William's 24-hour job line is 791-2776.

TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'

The beginning and end of the day for 16 Prince William schools will be shifted to provide flexibility in the bus schedule. The changes are:

School: Bennett Elementary

New time: 9:10 a.m.-3:40 p.m.

Old time: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

School: Featherstone Elementary

New time: 8:45 a.m.-3:15 p.m.

Old time: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

School: Henderson Elementary

New time: 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m

Old time: 9:15 a.m.-3:15 p.m.

School: Kerrydale Elementary

New time: 8:45 a.m.-3:15 p.m.

Old time: 8:50 a.m.-3:20 p.m.

School: King Elementary

New time: 9:15 a.m.-3:40 p.m.

Old time: 9:10 a.m.-3:35 p.m.

School: Leesylvania Elementary

New time: 9:10 a.m.-3:40 p.m.

Old time: 8:45 a.m.-3:15 p.m.

School: Minnieville Elementary

New time: 9:10 a.m.-3:40 p.m.

Old time: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

School: Mullen Elementary

New time: 9:10 a.m.-3:40 p.m.

Old time: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

School: Parkside Elementary

New time: 9:10 a.m.-3:40 p.m.

Old time: 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

School: Pattie Elementary/Washington-Reid annex

New time: 9:10 a.m.-3:40 p.m.

Old time: 9:10 a.m.-3:35 p.m.

School: River Oaks Elementary

New time: 8:45 a.m.-3:15 p.m.

Old time: 8:50 a.m.-3:20 p.m.

School: Graham Park Middle

New time: 8 a.m.-2:40 p.m.

Old time: 8:10 a.m.-2:50 p.m.

School: Lake Ridge Middle

New time: 7:55 a.m.-2:40 p.m.

Old time: 8 a.m.-2:45 p.m.

School: Rippon Middle

New time: 8 a.m.-2:40 p.m.

Old time: 8:05 a.m.-2:40 p.m.

SOURCE: Prince William County Schools