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Photo by city of Austin

Crossing guard shortage persists as school start date nears

Thursday, August 11, 2022 by Samuel Stark

“Let’s go crossing now, everybody’s learning how, looking left and right with me,” crossing guard Jimmy McCord sang to the tune of the Beach Boys hit “Surfin’ Safari.” “I’m a bit of an entertainer,” he noted.

This is just one of the songs Boone Elementary students may hear while safely crossing the street to school this upcoming semester.

McCord has been a crossing guard for five years now. He started when he retired and wanted to give back to his community.

“I love interacting with the people. I get out there and sing and dance, as well as try to keep the kids safe. I just love the whole thing, the whole job,” he told the Austin Monitor.

But while McCord is excited to get back to work in a couple of weeks, the city’s Public Works Department is having difficulty recruiting and retaining enough crossing guards leading up to the new school year. The department is still searching for 55 more guards to fill the empty positions in its Safe Routes to School program, which works to improve safety for elementary and middle students walking, biking or rolling to class. The program received $27 million from the 2016 mobility bond and an additional $20 million from a 2020 bond.

Safe Routes program manager Amir Emamian said during his time with Public Works, he has never seen so many vacancies. “It (is) like a perfect storm going into this year where we have nearly doubled the amount of vacancies that we have had in the past,” he said.

On their exit surveys, crossing guards indicated their reasons for leaving were mostly due to fear of getting sick with Covid-19 and financial burdens, Emamian said. Some crossing guards who left their positions said they could not afford to live in the areas where they worked and were unwilling to drive long distances to continue working as a crossing guard if they had to move.

There may be a pay bump for city employees on the horizon, however. In the budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2022-23, City Manager Spencer Cronk recommended the wages of city employees (which includes crossing guards) increase by 20 percent, from $15 to $18 an hour. The entire budget proposal will go in front of City Council for approval Aug. 17.

“It is a little extra money in somebody’s pocket. Of course, that is always a good thing,” McCord said.

While the Safe Routes to School team is keen to fill as many vacancies as possible before the school year begins, Emamian assured the Monitor that someone will be present on the streets helping kids cross safely before that first bell rings.

“We have supervisors and supervisor assistants to help cover a lot of the locations that are currently vacant, and we will work with schools to cover the other (vacancies),” Emamian said. “We need as many people to come on board, but we kind of have a plan in place to make sure that the school year starts off as safely as possible,” he added.

“There will always be a need for crossing guards. We are on the front lines,” McCord said.

Those interested in becoming crossing guards can apply on the Austin city jobs website.

“I would encourage anyone and everyone that wants to apply to do so. We can really use good people,” McCord said.

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