The people who drive your children to school in Evanston/Skokie District 65 had issued an ultimatum: “Pay us more to drive, or we walk.”

Faced with the loss of such critical workers, the district has agreed to kick in more money. So has the private contractor, Positive Connections, that operates the buses and employs the staff.

Raphael Obafemi, District 65’s chief financial officer, says a significant number of Positive Connections drivers were looking to leave for another bus company if their income did not go up.

In a memo to the Board of Education, Obafemi said the drivers were demanding an additional $2.00 per hour plus a $2,500 retention bonus.

“The drivers justified this request,” Obafemi said, because many other bus companies are giving drivers a $2,500 signing bonus.

In fact, Positive Connections itself had offered up to the same bonus, and $20.50 an hour earlier this fall, but school bus drivers have a lot of leverage and a lot of options.

“In response to the extremely challenging bus driver shortage nationwide,” Obafemi said, the district negotiated with Positive Connections to divide the cost of meeting the drivers’ latest demands.

District 65 will pay $125,000 and the contractor will pay $50,000. The district’s portion is a one-time expenditure.

The pay raise not only helps retain drivers, Obafemi said, but also creates “an incentive to improve driver attendance and recruitment.”

He told a school board committee meeting on Thursday that the higher pay for drivers will come from a combination of an hourly rate increase, an attendance bonus, and a retention payment at the end of the school year for drivers who have stayed the entire academic calendar.

Once the district and Positive Connections finish drawing up the paperwork, it will be presented to the full school board for approval.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.