AUBURN — When Diane Thomas was pulled into her supervisor’s office and asked to share the contents of a personal conversation among co-workers in March, she quit on the spot.

Thomas, a bus driver for the Auburn school district, finally had enough of what she and other former transportation employees described as a difficult and uncomfortable work environment, where they said management treated employees poorly.

She is one of a dozen bus drivers who left the district in the last calendar year, most of whom continue to drive buses for other employers, Ray Cloutier, leader of the district’s transportation union, said.

As drivers have left, runs have increasingly been consolidated to fit the district’s 3,000 students into fewer buses, and private companies have been hired to help transport students to sporting events.

Former Auburn School Department bus drivers, from left, Diane Thomas, John Kennedy, Deb, who requested her last name not be used, Janet Smith and Dan, who requested his last name not be used. Several cite their former supervisor in Auburn as the reason they left the district. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

Since four drivers quit in December, administrators have been faced with few other options but to cancel bus runs when drivers are out, sometimes with little notice. At times, this has left students unable to get to school and forced parents to leave work early to pick up their children.

According to information provided by Superintendent Cornelia Brown, 15 bus drivers have left the district during the 2020-21 and 2021-2022 school years and seven have been hired, all but one during the 2020-21 school year.  The district has 30 positions budgeted, Brown said.


Brown said there are 21 bus drivers in the district; Cloutier counted 13. Asked about the discrepancy, both stood by their numbers.

It’s a familiar story for districts across the state struggling with crippling staffing shortages and persisting pandemic-related problems, which have pushed some Maine schools to cancel buses entirely for days at a time.

Yet, current and former employees are dissatisfied with school officials’ characterization of the problem, saying they feel the true reasons many of the district’s drivers have left in the past year have not been recognized or addressed.

The primary cause lies with management and the work environment, which have pushed drivers to seek other employment opportunities, they said, rather than the nationwide shortage of drivers.

Drivers such as Thomas have their pick of employers due to the shortage, some which may be closer to home, pay better, or offer sign-on bonuses and other appealing characteristics.

Just hours after she and her husband, a bus aide, quit, they already had new jobs lined up in Lewiston.


Not only did she receive a $1,500 sign-on bonus for making the move, she recently earned an additional $4,500 for encouraging three of her co-workers from Auburn to do the same.

Thomas’ job in Lewiston is nearly identical to the one she held for five years in Auburn, but the work environment is far more supportive, she said. She isn’t stressed about going to work, and she feels respected by her boss, who helps pick up the extra workload by driving bus runs each day.

It wasn’t money or benefits which pushed her to leave, she said, but bad experiences with management. Auburn employees have health benefits, Thomas said, but she receives none working for Hudson Bus Lines, which provides transportation for the Lewiston school district.

The Sun Journal spoke with six bus drivers who left the Auburn school district within the past calendar year, all of whom continue to drive buses for other employers. Each said poor management and a negative work environment were major reasons they decided to leave the district. They often cited specific experiences with their former supervisor, Director of Student Support Services William Hunter, who oversees the district’s busing and maintenance departments.

“I would have still been in Auburn if not for Billy Hunter,” Thomas said. “Billy Hunter is a boss, not a leader.”

Janet Smith, another bus driver, said she left for similar reasons.


“You don’t feel comfortable working where you’re talked down to, you’re disrespected, or you just ignored when you have a problem with another driver,” Smith said.

She and other former employees said taking time off was heavily discouraged, even before drivers became scarce. After taking time off for surgery, she said she received a “cold attitude.”

When John Kennedy told Hunter about a driver who was “trying to tell me how to run my bus, his way,” Kennedy said his former boss suggested filing harassment charges, rather than helping to address the yearlong issue. Kennedy said this experience was part of the reason he quit in December.

Dan, who requested his last name not be used, called the work environment “hostile,” adding that he felt like he “had to step on eggshells” while at work.

Others added that trips, which give drivers extra hours and are supposed to be rotated among drivers, were unfairly assigned.

Former drivers also said they felt dissatisfied that Hunter was unwilling to help transport students, even as drivers left and the workload grew.


“His responsibilities in the other areas of his job, (specifically) maintenance and custodial responsibilities and the new Edward Little High School, have really overtaken the work that he can do driving a bus,” Brown said, confirming that he does hold a commercial driver’s license.

Hunter has worked for the Auburn school district since 1993 and took on his role as director of student services more than 20 years ago. He did not return a request for comment.

In a Tuesday email, Brown attributed the district’s turnover to the yearslong, nationwide shortage of drivers exacerbated by the pandemic. Six of the eight drivers who left this school year work for private employers, such as Hudson, which have more flexibility regarding salaries and benefits.

In contrast, she explained that it is more difficult for public school districts like Auburn to make changes to pay during the school year because the budget, which includes salaries, is set annually in June.

On Friday, Brown announced a recommendation to the School Committee that, if approved, would give all employees a $1,000 bonus from federal relief funds. An additional proposal would provide staff who successfully recruit new employees a $1,500 referral bonus, paid for by district funds.

Brown said Tuesday she will propose creating a long-term transportation plan at Wednesday’s School Committee meeting which would consider recruitment, retention, training, the system used to schedule bus routes, as well as the director of student support services role, which she suggested may have too many responsibilities for one individual.


She additionally plans to ask current employees for their suggestions about recruiting and retaining drivers.

The district is actively negotiating with the transportation union, which was organized in the spring of 2021.

Cloutier said employees formed the union to advocate for better benefits and have a voice. After several transportation employees left the district in February and March, he saw no evidence that administrators were trying to understand and address the problems employees were experiencing.

In spite of the management problems, Cloutier believes the district should first start by improving pay and benefits, which he said are not competitive with nearby districts.

Feelings of discontent from current and former drivers recently pushed Auburn resident Moe Galarneau, who drives a bus for a different employer, to speak during public comment at the past two School Committee meetings, most recently suggesting school officials call former drivers and ask why they left.

Brown wrote that the district conducted electronic exit interviews at the time and confirmed that district staff are contacting former drivers to “give them an opportunity to share any additional information they felt would be important.”

Out of five former drivers asked, only one said she had been formally asked her reason for leaving by email, while a second said she had an informal conversation with one of her supervisors. The other three said they had not been asked their reason for leaving at the time of their departure.

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