Every school day, Meghan Eaton finds out how her day is going to unfold when she gets 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 out a list of bus routes that will be in service that day and those that will not. Since September, Eaton has had to drive her son to school or pick him up at least once a week because of the canceled bus routes.

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

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona listens to Cindy Messier, a bus driver trainer for RSU21, at the district’s bus garage in Kennebunk on Monday, April 11, 2022. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“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 school bus driver shortage – an issue that has plagued the state for years and was both exacerbated and highlighted by the pandemic.

RSU 57, which serves the Waterboro and Alfred areas, has been struggling with a severe bus driver shortage since the beginning of the school year. A number of drivers have left the district this year, following better pay in other districts or retiring, said Missy Knight, the administrative assistant to the district’s transportation coordinator. On Monday afternoon the district had five drivers out, Knight said. And even though transportation office staff and two retired bus drivers had stepped in to help, the district still had two uncovered routes.


In Maine, finding enough school bus drivers has been a problem for years due to low pay and a monthslong process to get a commercial driver’s license. In 2017, the problem was so severe that Maine started incentivizing people to become bus drivers by offering free training and bonuses.

Five years and one pandemic later, the shortage persists. But the American Rescue Plan – 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 money that can be used to raise wages and offer hiring bonuses.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, center, and bus drivers with RSU21 listen to Rep. Chellie Pingree talk at the RSU21 bus garage in Kennebunk on Monday, April 11, 2022. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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

In addition to using federal funds to support school bus drivers, the district recently used taxpayer money to repave the school bus parking lot, which according to district drivers was previously half dirt and filled with potholes, and to negotiate a new contract with the bus drivers with a starting salary of $20 per 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 it is not an easy job,” said Terri Cooper, RSU21 superintendent. “You have to love students and they do,”

The job of bus drivers got a lot more complicated during the pandemic. Cindy Messier, a bus driver of 20 years, explained at the news conference with Cardona and Pingree the challenges of getting kids to keep their masks on, taking their temperatures and ensuring that they maintained social distance.


Renda Turner, a bus driver of 23 years, said it was hard to get some high school students to keep their masks on.

Although Turner and Messier admitted the challenges of the job during the pandemic, they also talked about how they enjoyed the work, especially working with children and families.

“This is a people business, this is a relationship business, and you clearly understood the assignment,” Cardona told Turner, Messier and the other bus drivers who took part in the news conference at RSU 21. “It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to appreciate our bus drivers.”

While RSU 21 was able to leverage federal funds to retain and hire bus drivers and keep their student transportation system running, not every district in the state was able to do the same.

In Lewiston, the driver shortage means bus routes are frequently canceled. “Good morning. Bus 34 will not run today due to the continued driver shortage,” Jake Langlais, the superintendent for Lewiston schools, tweeted Monday morning.

The Old Orchard Beach school district has been using a mix of federal and local taxpayer money to pay for commercial license training – the license needed to drive a school bus – and give $2,500 sign-on bonuses to school staff who agree to take the wheel when a driver is out sick. Superintendent John Suttie said they tap into their additional drivers from this program at least once a week.

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