Amid a nationwide shortage, Maine is looking for a few good school bus drivers.

Several districts are looking to fill bus driver positions, and one of the hardest hit is Scarborough, where a seven-driver shortfall has forced the district to combine some runs and contract out two runs to Custom Coach, a private bus company.

“We know there has been some frustration,” Superintendent Julie Kukenberger said in an email to parents after the start of the year, describing the shortage. “We understand and we are doing the best we can to work out the wrinkles as quickly as possible!”

That means a $200 referral bonus, a $500 new-driver bonus, free training and guaranteed 35-hour workweeks. But even that has led to only four new hires, she said Wednesday.

It’s part of a bigger problem in southern Maine districts, she said.

“Absolutely. There was recently an email chain going around (the area’s superintendents) and this one was down two, this one was down three,” she said.

It’s also something school districts here and nationwide have been facing for several years, transportation directors say. A better economy means there are more employers seeking workers, and the traditional bus driver job can mean strange split-shift hours at low pay – along with a lot of responsibility for children and the need for a special commercial driver’s license.

Getting the commercial driver’s license and becoming a school bus driver can take about three months. In addition to training, there’s a criminal background check, a pre-employment physical, a pre-employment drug test, four computerized tests in the permit process, then waiting two weeks to get a date for an in-person driving test.

Maine also has rural school districts and long bus routes. Statewide, there are more than 2,300 school bus drivers who travel more than 30 million miles over the course of a year, according to the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation. About 80 percent of Maine students ride a school bus, which is significantly higher than the national average of 50 percent.

‘WE’RE PIECING IT TOGETHER’

Last year, the shortfall in Maine was acute enough that the state created a special training program. The Maine Department of Education partnered with the Maine Department of Labor for a “Hire-A-Vet” campaign offering free training to veterans interested in becoming school bus drivers. At the time, the state estimated that there were 50 vacancies statewide.

In South Portland, Superintendent Ken Kunin said they created their own free drivers’ training program last fall to help plug perennial vacancies. This fall, they are still short despite the program – but it might have been much worse without it, he said.

“If we had not been doing the work – offering the training – we’d be in worse shape,” he said Wednesday. “If we’d done nothing, it would absolutely be worse.”

As it is, the shortfall means South Portland has had to cancel some away games and combine athletic trips in a way that wasn’t as convenient for teams, he said. “We’re piecing it together.”

Local union representatives, who are in negotiations with the school board regarding driver contracts, say the Scarborough shortfall is attributable to the district’s low wages – that drivers are quitting to go to neighboring districts that have higher pay. But Kukenberger said she doesn’t think that is a factor.

Kukenberger said the district was short bus drivers last year as well, and used Custom Coach for some sports trips. This year is the first time the district has used private buses for regular runs.

In Portland, which just negotiated a new contract for drivers, there is no driver shortage, Transportation Director Fred Barlow said. “We have had drivers from other districts come here. We’ve been very fortunate in that,” Barlow said. “Our drivers received a very competitive wage in the most recent negotiations and an extremely competitive benefits package that’s very attractive.”

AN INDUSTRY-WIDE PROBLEM

Barlow said the starting wage for a bus driver in Portland is $16.88 an hour. The existing Scarborough contract starts drivers at $16.21. The job website Indeed.com estimates a statewide average of $16.55 per hour, based on information from 36 months of job postings.

Barlow said the bus driver shortage is “endemic” in the industry, and national statistics bear that out.

A recent survey of the 100 largest school bus fleets nationwide found that the bus driver shortage is getting worse, according to an editor at School Bus Fleet magazine.

In the September survey, the results of which will appear in the magazine’s November issue, nearly 25 percent of the respondents selected the “desperate” category – being at least 16 percent short on drivers – to describe their driver shortage, managing editor Nicole Schlosser said. The same survey in 2017 only found 5 percent reporting a “desperate” shortage.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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