PARIS — Seven SAD 17 buses and its bus garage failed inspection last Tuesday, losing its license to internally certify that buses are road-worthy.

Administrators immediately set up a process to have commercial inspectors from Ripley & Fletcher and O’Conner’s come in to inspect the fleet. That same day the district’s mechanics went to work addressing the sanctions state inspectors issued. The license suspension is for 90 days.

Seven buses are still disabled, Dr. Monica Henson told the Advertiser Democrat on Tuesday morning from the bus garage in Norway.

Currently they have one bus driver position open, and not one substitute driver available.

After Henson started at her post June 30, she did an introductory audit of each department. She found that the bus garage had some longstanding issues not obvious last year when fewer students were in school but human resources were stretched.

One change she made, as of August 11, was to set policy that none of the mechanics nor the transportation department director are to fill in as substitute drivers, instead maintaining full focus on their own full time responsibilities.

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“The job of any school administrator at any level, from assistant principal to superintendent is quite simply, to remove obstacles and to provide resources,” Henson said in an email statement. “The overarching primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of students and staff. Providing transportation by school bus is a resource. Lack of available drives is an obstacle. Taking mechanics out of the bus garage in order to drive routes jeopardizes safety. I will work with the school board to find other solutions than allowing mechanics to drive as substitutes.

“Frankly, I was dismayed to learn that mechanics have been driving routes prior to my arrival. This is a fundamental breach of responsibility to the safety of children and drivers.”

With the seven buses idle at the garage, some drivers have to run the same route twice in a shift, meaning that some students arrive at and leave school at different times than others.

Henson is also making arrangements with a third-party consultant to direct the district’s plans to bring the garage and mechanics back into compliance.

Employee shortages are nothing new these days for school districts all over the state.

“There are currently five school-year appointed positions that are vacant,” said Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hartnett on Friday. “This includes regular route drivers and what is considered our regular spare drivers to fill in as needed on routes. And we currently have one vacant mechanic position that we have had advertised since early summer.”

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Enrollments

In addition to the garage and many buses in its fleet failing inspection, Oxford Hills saw a sudden uptick from families outside of the district enrolling their children with SAD 17. Two neighboring school districts’ school boards approved reopening plans that called for mask-wearing to be recommended rather than mandatory, resulting in a number of parents sending their children to Oxford Hills schools at the last minute.

That issue has ballooned the number of students in many schools and compounded an already stark teacher shortage.

District administrators had been working to merge existing classes due to fewer teachers, but because of increased enrollment suddenly had to start moving students to other schools altogether, right up until school started last week.

“No first day of school is ever 100% functional,” Henson said. “I am very grateful that we are able to bring students back into their buildings and I am grateful to the Board of Directors for making sure it is done safely.”

“In terms of our ongoing work we are still looking to finalize and consolidate routes as student registrations and enrollments continue to come in,” added Hartnett. “Those routes are continually adjusted to adapt to changing student needs. We are also working on the necessary repairs as outlined through the inspection process.

“And of course we continue to try to think of innovative ways to recruit and retain drivers to meet our needs. The lack of drivers is a local, regional and national problem.”

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