Maine school districts are facing a worse-than-usual bus driver shortage with the start of school approaching, and some schools say the COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder to recruit drivers.

The shortage has districts offering incentives and signing bonuses, including a $3,000 sign-on bonus in Scarborough, a $2,000 sign-on bonus in the Gorham School District, and $1,500 in Kennebunk-based Regional School Unit 21.

“This has been an ongoing issue,” said Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry. “COVID certainly made it bigger but it is something we’ve struggled with for several years now.”

With the start of school imminent, districts around Maine – and nationally – are struggling to recruit enough transportation staff. Hiring and retaining bus drivers is always a challenge due to factors including low pay, the time and cost of getting licensed and what are often odd hours. But this year COVID-19 has created an additional barrier.

“It is an issue in the state of Maine and it’s also an epidemic nationally,” said Michelle Caron, director of transportation in the Brunswick School Department and president of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation, a statewide organization representing school transportation personnel. “It’s across the nation, especially with COVID-19. It placed our older drivers into retirement and then, of course, there was a shortage to begin with prior to COVID-19.”

Gray-based School Administrative District 15 has open positions for four drivers, substitute bus drivers, van and bus aides and a bus mechanic. Transportation Supervisor Peggy Bowden said many older bus drivers decided to retire when the pandemic hit and she’s bracing for a difficult start to the school year.

“I think a lot of them got scared,” Bowden said. “They thought they would get sick from the kids so a lot of them retired or got done because of that fact.”

Tom Hudak, who came out of retirement a few years ago to drive for the district, agrees some people have been reluctant to drive during the pandemic, but he personally isn’t worried about it and said there are sanitation and ventilation protocols to help keep students and drivers safe. Hudak said there are many reasons for the ongoing shortages, including retirements and the level of responsibility that comes with the job, but he has been happy since deciding to go back to work.

Buses were lined up at the School Administrative District 15 garage in Gray on Wednesday. The district has open positions for four drivers, substitute bus drivers, van and bus aides and a bus mechanic.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I enjoy what I do and I enjoy working with the kids,” Hudak said. “It’s a rewarding job. You ride along the countryside and get to see different parts of the state delivering kids and athletes to different parts of the state.”

If SAD 15 is unable to fill its vacancies, middle and high school students could experience bus ride times of up to 75 minutes. Buses may also be more crowded and some students could miss instructional time.

“There are shortages of good employees in all sectors of the economy,” said Superintendent Craig King. “It has always been difficult to find really good bus drivers because it is a challenging job with a lot of requirements. I think it’s become a statewide issue and I think the pandemic exacerbates the issue.”

The Gorham district is offering $2,000 bonuses for drivers who sign on for a year, but Perry said she’s only had one person take the offer and the district currently needs three more drivers. The hourly wage for a full-time driver in Gorham ranges from $19.66 to $23.81 depending on years of service, and also comes with holidays, benefits and vacation.

If Gorham is unable to hire for the positions, Perry said, the district will work with an outside contractor to fill the routes, but that option is more expensive. It also isn’t something that’s available for every district in the state.

“We’re lucky in this part of the state,” Perry said. “Other parts of the state don’t have that.”

The Maine Department of Education doesn’t track unfilled positions, so it’s hard to put a number on how bad the shortage is. But the department is hearing anecdotally about school bus driver shortages.’

Tom Hudak makes his way to a bus to drive a sports team to a scrimmage Wednesday. He says some people have been reluctant to drive during the pandemic but he isn’t worried, with sanitation and ventilation protocols to help keep students and drivers safe.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“Nationally and in Maine, there was a shortage of school bus drivers before the pandemic,” said Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the department, in an email. “That shortage increased and was exacerbated by the pandemic, when more drivers were needed to minimize the number of students on buses and with impacts such as quarantining.”

Buxton-based School Administrative District 6, which is currently short four drivers but has three in training, has been offering a $1,000 retention bonus for three years, along with paid training and other benefits. The salary is $18.48 to $21.42 per hour depending on experience.

Transportation Director Dottie Muchmore said that despite the shortage, the district will be able to transport all students safely starting Sept. 1 and she doesn’t believe the pandemic has made recruiting more difficult. Instead, she cited long-term issues that are playing into this year’s shortage: part-time employment, pay that isn’t comparable to other commercial driving opportunities, and the responsibility that comes with school bus driving.

“Districts today must offer an attractive package to recruit and retain school bus drivers,” Muchmore said in an email.

Federal law requires bus drivers to obtain a commercial driver’s license with school bus and passenger endorsements and to undergo drug testing.

There are also state requirements, including that drivers have a license for the class of vehicle they’ll be operating, be at least 21 years old and pass an exam for operating the specific vehicle they’ll be driving.

Training and meeting all the requirements can cost $500 to thousands of dollars and typically takes four to six months, said Caron, of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation. “It’s not an easy track,” she said. “It’s nothing that’s hurried.”

In an effort to recruit more drivers, Caron said, districts are offering incentives and bonuses, advertising on social media and at job fairs and reaching out to groups such as veterans and firefighters who may be interested because of their past work experience. If schools are not successful, they may have to use double bus runs, eliminate extra trips, such as for sports events, or call on mechanics and transportation directors to drive buses.

In Scarborough, school officials said at a board meeting last week they are short about six bus drivers. The district posted an advertisement on its Facebook page last month for a $3,000 sign-on bonus for bus drivers. Superintendent Geoff Bruno did not respond to a phone message or email Wednesday. Transportation Director Sarah Redmond was not available when a reporter called the transportation department and did not respond to an email.

In Regional School Unit 21, which serves Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel, Superintendent Terri Cooper said the district was worried about a bus driver shortage as well as shortages in other areas at the end of last year for several reasons, including retirements and medical leaves. But she said the district worked with drivers to negotiate higher wages and make them more competitive with the market. Earlier this summer, they were also offering a $1,500 sign-on bonus for bus drivers.

While RSU 21 does have some staff shortages among teachers and education technicians, Cooper said, the bonus and higher wages have helped them enter the school year with a full quota of bus drivers. “We are ready to roll out our buses on day one and can do so safely,” she said.


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