The Portland school board took action Tuesday night to address chronic transportation staffing shortages, voting unanimously to approve $3,000 hiring and retention bonuses for bus drivers, as well as a new policy allowing staff and volunteers to drive students in private vehicles.

Agenda items on both issues passed 7-0 with board member Sarah Thompson absent.

“I will strongly support it and look forward to seeing how this impacts our ability to hire and retain a full staff of bus drivers so we don’t continue to face these challenges with transportation,” board Chair Emily Figdor said of the bonuses.

The bonuses and policy are two steps Portland Public Schools is taking to address a bus driver shortage that has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and which is being felt by schools around Maine and the country.

“We are daily on the verge of not being able to run our full transportation schedule and yesterday we experienced the first of the cancellations we’ve been predicting,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said. “While things worked out as smoothly as we could have asked for, we’re continuing to work to develop mitigations such as carpooling, volunteers, additional charters and charter routes and METRO for students who may need it and are able to take advantage of it. But the single largest mitigation we can put in place is to make sure we’re fully staffed.”

The district is short about eight bus drivers between absences, leave and training. A full staff would consist of 29 drivers. On Monday, the district had its first bus route cancellation of the year, which affected 147 students from three schools: Talbot and Rowe elementary schools and Lincoln Middle School.

The $3,000 bonus, which is available to both new and current bus drivers, would become available June 30 or six months after a driver’s hire date, whichever is later. Drivers must meet attendance requirements and district employees who successfully refer a fully licensed bus driver are eligible for a $1,000 referral bonus.

The board also approved a policy Tuesday allowing staff and volunteers to drive students in private vehicles when regular school transportation is not available, provided staff and volunteers are properly vetted and trained and parent or guardian consent is obtained. The procedures accompanying the policy include that drivers must have a valid driver’s license, vehicle registration and inspection sticker for their vehicle; must carry minimum liability, property damage and medical insurance; and must undergo a criminal and driving record check.

With the policy approved, the district will work to identify a pool of volunteers who could be called to assist when regular transportation isn’t available and where they might be needed. On Monday, although the route cancellation impacted 147 students, the district found many families were still able to get their students to school after they sent a message at 6:45 a.m. telling the families to activate their alternative transportation plans, Botana said.

District staff also picked up some students and only a small number of the affected students – around seven – were absent for the day.

“It worked well,” Botana said. “We’re trying now to get a clear understanding of who needs rides (when transportation isn’t available).”

In other news Tuesday, Botana said the district has obtained building permits for Longfellow and Reiche elementary schools and is now able to resume full construction work on renovations at those schools. The projects, along with a third school construction project at Presumpscot Elementary School, had previously been delayed by the permitting process, leading to about $1.5 million in estimated additional costs.

While the building permit for Presumpscot is still pending, Botana said the district has a foundation permit and has been able to do some work on the project. The additional costs fall within the projects’ budgeted contingency funds and the district will be working to finalize the costs and will work through them with the District Advisory Building Committee.

The board also took a non-binding “straw vote” Tuesday to unanimously appoint Figdor to a second year as board chair. A formal vote will be taken at the upcoming December meeting.

Note: This story was updated at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 17, to correct the names of the elementary schools that have received permits for renovations to resume.

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