In this Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 photo students head for their buses at York Middle School in York, Maine. A shortage of school bus drivers in some communities in New England and across the country is causing headaches for school districts this fall. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
YORK (AP) — A shortage of school bus drivers this year has led some schools and bus companies in New England to push back the first day of classes, consolidate bus routes and offer sign-on bonuses and recruit veterans and custodians as drivers.
School bus contractors and school districts alike say the biggest challenges to recruitment are low unemployment rates, poor pay and benefits, split shifts and a lengthy licensing process. With school now in session, officials in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire say more drivers are needed to end and prevent shortages.
On the first day of school in Berwick, Maine, students arrived to private Berwick Academy in deluxe commercial motor coaches instead of the traditional yellow bus after local bus company Ledgemere Transportation said they didn’t have enough drivers to serve all routes. The company provides bus rides to the private Berwick Academy and public schools in Kittery and York, where tardy busses have remained an issue.
“For me, it means I’m doing my own route plus half of another bus’ route because we don’t have enough drivers,” said Ledgemere driver Debbie Johnson.
Ledgemere school bus driver Sherry Lash said as a mom, long rides concern her. While some states limit how long kids can ride on busses, Maine law leaves the matter up to local authorities.
“My biggest concern is poor kindergarteners staying on so long,” Lash said. “They’re so little.”
She said the company has brought in drivers from Rhode Island and Connecticut to help, but “if one of us is to get sick, there’s nobody to cover.”
Mark McQuillan, interim superintendent for York public schools, said he’s especially worried about less time for classroom learning. A part-time janitor has stepped up by driving some students to a vocational program, and the district’s trying to enlist other part-time workers.
Brian Trafton, terminal manager of Ledgemere, said the company is short eight to 10 bus drivers in York with two in training. Trafton said they’re offering a $1,500 sign-on bonus, training classes and competitive wages.
There’s no national data on the extent of the problem, but industry groups say the shortage is growing persistent. Trade publication School Bus Fleet Magazine surveys top school districts and bus operators, and said around 90 percent reported some level of shortage in surveys last year and in previous years. In 2009, about 58 percent of school districts reported some driver shortage.
Meanwhile, federal labor statistics show school bus drivers or drivers of those with special needs have the highest projected job growth in the transit sector from 2012 to 2022.
Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said his organization’s 2016 survey of more than 1,000 school districts and bus companies found 70 percent said the driver shortage is worsening.
Ahead of the school year, Maine rolled out a program to recruit veterans to fill 50 open bus driver positions.
In New Hampshire, there are approximately 4,000 bus routes but only 3,000 licensed drivers, the Concord Monitor reported. This fall, the elementary and middle schools in Wakefield started a week later because as summer ended, there were only three drivers for 14 routes.
Similarly in Northwood, New Hampshire, the elementary school’s daily start time was pushed back to 10 a.m. because of a driver shortage, and bus service for the town’s high school was eliminated.
Brian Hemenway, general manager for Student Transportation of America, which works with 28 school districts in New Hampshire and 21 in Vermont, said some districts have had to consolidate routes. He said finding enough qualified bus drivers is a decades-old challenge grown acute in the last few years.
“The prospect of driving 60 to 70 kids in a large vehicle might scare people off,” he said. His company pays $18 to $20 an hour; the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics say bus drivers make a median of $14.50 hourly.
Hemenway says his company also pays expenses for licensing and training and has hired high school students to distribute about 7,500 fliers in the Burlington area. Those fliers generated about a half dozen applicants.