Maine school bus driver shortage persists

Every school day, Meghan Eaton finds out how her day is going to go when she receives a text from her son’s school district between 5:30 a.m. and 6 a.m.

That’s when Regional School Unit 57 sends a list of the bus lines that will be in service that day and those that will not. Since September, Eaton has had to drive or pick up her son at least once a week due to canceled bus routes.

Eaton said she was lucky her schedule allowed her to take her elementary-aged son to school. She stays home during the day to help out her parents and can schedule things like doctor’s appointments in the middle of the day so she’s free to drop off and pick up her son. But Eaton said she had three friends who had lost their jobs because they were constantly late or had to leave work to take their children to and from school.

“It’s out of control,” she said.

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, accompanied by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, visited RSU 21, the Kennebunk-area school district, to discuss the driver shortage. school buses — an issue that has plagued the state for years and has been both exacerbated and brought to light by the pandemic.

RSU 57, which serves the Waterboro and Alfred areas, has faced a severe shortage of bus drivers since the start of the school year. A number of drivers left the district this year, due to better pay in other districts or retirement, said Missy Knight, the administrative assistant to the district’s transportation coordinator. As of Monday afternoon, the district had five drivers, Knight said. And even though transport office staff and two retired bus drivers had stepped in to help, the district still had two routes uncovered.

In Maine, finding enough school bus drivers has been a problem for years due to low wages and the months-long process to obtain a commercial driver’s license. In 2017, the problem was so bad that Maine started incentivizing people to become bus drivers by offering free training and bonuses.

Five years and a pandemic later, the shortage persists. But the US bailout — a $1.9 trillion pandemic-related economic stimulus package passed by the federal government last spring — can be used to help alleviate the problem by providing federal funds that can be used to increase wages and offer hiring bonuses.

RSU21 used these funds to purchase two new school buses totaling $188,000 and give cash bonuses of $500 to its full-time drivers and $250 to its part-time drivers.

In addition to using federal funds to support school bus drivers, the district recently used taxpayer dollars to repave the school bus parking lot, which district drivers said was previously half-dirt and filled with potholes, and to negotiate a new contract with the bus drivers. with a starting salary of $20 an hour for someone with no experience.

“We have longevity with our bus drivers because we affirm the work they do. We appreciate them and we recognize that this is not an easy task,” said Terri Cooper, Superintendent of RSU21. You have to love the students and they do,”

The work of bus drivers has become much more complicated during the pandemic. Cindy Messier, a bus driver for 20 years, explained at the press conference with Cardona and Pingree the challenges of getting children to keep their masks on, take their temperatures and make sure they maintain social distancing.

Renda Turner, a 23-year-old bus driver, said it was difficult to get some high school students to keep their masks on.

While Turner and Messier admitted to the challenges of working during the pandemic, they also talked about how much they enjoy the job, especially working with children and families.

“It’s about people, it’s about relationships, and you clearly got the mission,” Cardona told Turner, Messier and other bus drivers who attended the press conference at RSU 21. “It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to appreciate our bus drivers.

While RSU 21 was able to raise federal funds to retain and hire bus drivers and keep its student transportation system running, not all districts in the state were able to do the same.

In Lewiston, the shortage of drivers means that bus routes are frequently cancelled. “Good morning. Bus 34 will not be running today due to the continued shortage of drivers,” Lewiston Schools Superintendent Jake Langlais tweeted Monday morning.

The Old Orchard Beach School District is using a mix of federal and local taxpayer dollars to pay for business license training — the license needed to drive a school bus — and giving $2,500 enrollment bonuses to school staff. the school that agrees to take the wheel when a driver is sick. Superintendent John Suttie said they draw on their extra drivers from this program at least once a week.

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