The Portland school district is considering offering a $3,000 hiring and retention bonus for school bus drivers and may allow students to be transported by staff or volunteers as the city struggles to keep buses running.

The proposals come as school districts around Maine and nationwide are continuing to struggle with workforce shortages and as Gov. Janet Mills has requested more flexibility from the federal government around bus driver training and requirements.

The Portland school board is scheduled to take up the $3,000 bonuses and a policy proposal on the use of private vehicles for student transportation at its regular meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. to be held both remotely via Zoom and in-person at Casco Bay High School.

Superintendent Xavier Botana told the board last week that the district is continuing to see high levels of vacancies among transportation, food service and custodial staff, as well as a shortage of substitute teachers. “Transportation is an area where we have mobilized to address the continuing challenges presented by staffing levels,” Botana said.

Neither Botana nor district communications staff responded Monday to phone messages or emails seeking more information, including the latest number of transportation staff vacancies. In late October, the district had 26 bus drivers, whereas a full staff would consist of 29, but two were on extended sick leave and another two were trainees who couldn’t yet drive alone.

Botana told families of elementary and middle school students at the time to prepare for the possibility some bus runs could be canceled this fall.


Portland is not alone in facing transportation and other staff shortages this school year or in trying to come up with creative solutions.

State education leaders from around the country, including from the Maine Department of Education, met last week at a national gathering where workforce shortages were discussed as one of the greatest challenges currently facing schools, said Kelli Deveaux, a spokeswoman for the Maine DOE. She said school officials in some states are partnering with public transportation systems or after-school or community recreation programs that have vehicles to coordinate transportation.


This month, Mills wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to request greater flexibility around rules for driver training to help districts cope with the persistent shortage of drivers and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A crossing guard helps pedestrians cross Stevens Avenue on Monday as a school bus picks up students in the background as school lets out at Longfellow School in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“School districts across Maine have implemented creative approaches to addressing this driver shortage crisis – from sign-on bonuses and paid on-the-job training programs to collaboration with Adult Education programs for commercial driver’s license prep courses – and I commend their work to hire more drivers,” Mills wrote. “Despite these efforts, we continue to suffer from an extreme shortage of school bus drivers, resulting in a daily crisis for many school districts across our state.”

Specifically, Mills asked that the federal government continue to postpone compliance with a new rule for entry-level commercial driver training and extend the waiver of a 14-day wait period between when drivers receive a commercial learner’s permit and when they can take a skills test to upgrade their license. Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Mills, said Monday she was not aware of the governor’s office receiving a response to the letter yet.


On Tuesday, the Portland school board will consider a new memorandum of understanding with the Benefit Association of School Employees, or BASE, a labor union representing support staff, that allows for a $3,000 sign-on and retention bonus for fully licensed bus drivers who remain as active drivers through June 30, 2022. Both currently employed drivers and new drivers could qualify for the payments.

The memorandum also calls for a referral bonus of $1,000 for employees who refer a fully-licensed bus driver who is subsequently hired, and allows for the creation of a list of employees who are willing to serve as bus assistants on an on-call basis. Funding would come from federal COVID relief money. Attempts to reach the union president Monday were unsuccessful.


The board also will consider a new policy that would allow staff and volunteers to transport students in private vehicles when regular district transportation is not available, provided volunteers are properly vetted and trained and parents or guardians grant consent.

The policy is based on a model policy from the Maine School Management Association and is being considered along with administrative procedures that call for safety and vetting protocols such as making sure a criminal and driving record check is conducted for all prospective drivers and that drivers have a valid driver’s license, vehicle registration and inspection sticker for their vehicles.

School board Chair Emily Figdor said she was unable to respond to questions about the incentives and policy proposal Monday afternoon, but one school board member said the current situation is forcing the district to have to get creative.


“Even with athletics, there pretty much wasn’t a season for middle school sports or JV because there wasn’t transportation for away (games),” board member Sarah Thompson said. “I don’t know what the solution is. We’re looking at every front we can and we don’t want to take opportunities away from the kids, especially where they’ve all been sequestered and away from their friends (because of  COVID). I think we have to do what we can do to work to get bus drivers and retain them.”

Maine School Management Association Executive Director Steve Bailey said he was unaware of any other school districts that are considering policies to transport students in privately owned vehicles, though he said the transportation staffing shortages are something many districts are struggling with.

Last week police in Richmond offered to drive students to school after bus transportation was suspended for more than a week. Wales-based Regional School Unit 4 has canceled bus runs twice in the last month due to driver absences and a lack of available substitutes.

“People are doing everything they can to try and establish ways to generate more interest and have the barriers be reasonable with regards to getting bus driver licensing,” Bailey said. “That’s one of the major issues right now, is the length of time it takes and the steps you have to go through. … It’s a combination of difficulties and people are trying to find ways they can to get their students to school.”

In a letter to the community last week, Botana said Portland has contracted with a private company to add one more bus and a 15-passenger van to its fleet to help fill in when there are absences. The district has also reached an agreement with Greater Portland METRO that its buses will be available to students and accompanying adults for free on any days the district has to cancel a bus route because of a lack of drivers. Students can board the METRO bus and tell the driver which school they attend and the driver will note that and send the district the bill.

Several other school districts are also offering financial incentives to recruit and retain bus drivers, such as the Gorham School District, which is advertising a $2,000 sign-on bonus for bus drivers. Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry said the district is also offering a $1,000 retention bonus.

Gorham has three bus driver openings and two drivers in training, though Perry said she worries shortages will persist. “We should be short one (driver) when those two are trained, but it won’t last long probably, because some folks will be out on medical leave and we possibly have one retirement later this year,” she said.

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