The Portland school district is consolidating bus routes and offering hiring bonuses to tackle an ongoing bus driver shortage that has canceled routes on 12 days this school year and led to delays in routes serving homeless students and those in specialized programs, district Director of Operations Terry Young told the city school board Tuesday.

Short term, the district is consolidating routes, contracting with outside vendors, offering hiring bonuses and training, and having non-transportation staff use their personal cars to get students from A to B. In the long term, it is considering changing school bell schedules to spread out its limited resources, and partnering with the city to provide free public transportation for middle school students, something already available to high school students.

The Portland district’s transportation woes reflect an ongoing national bus driver shortage exacerbated by the pandemic. Recruiting school bus drivers has long been a challenge because of low pay, irregular hours and the time commitment required to get the appropriate driver’s license.

The national mean salary for school bus drivers is $36,110 according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. To get a commercial driver’s license, one must be 21, have had a standard driver’s license for a year and pass exams and a road test, which can take a few weeks to a few months.

Over the course of the pandemic, bus drivers retired early and moved to other fields, reducing an already undersized national workforce, and surges of the respiratory virus RSV, the flu and COVID that have swept the nation this winter haven’t helped.

Around the state, intersections are decorated with signs calling for drivers and advertising training programs. Schools and buses are clad in banners delivering the same message. According to a national survey last spring of around 300 school districts by the RAND research group, a majority are looking for additional bus drivers.


Also Tuesday, interim co-Superintendent Aaron Townsend told the school board that the district has been making significant progress rectifying payroll problems that have affected hundreds of employees.

Pay period by pay period, the district has been resolving issues it has struggled with this school year, such as withholding incorrect benefit amounts for some employees, Townsend said.

There were 15 new or ongoing payroll issues logged during the most recent pay period, he said.

The district has also been communicating with the Maine Department of Labor regarding its payroll crisis and will work with employees to address overpayments after an audit of the district’s payroll system is completed, said Townsend.

Union leaders Kerrie Dowdy and Jen Cooper declined to comment on the state of the district’s payroll difficulties.

Since October, the district has failed to pay at least half of its 1,500 employees accurately, on time, or at all. In mid-December, over 750 employees had communicated with the district about payroll or related issues ranging from queries about how to access certain payroll information to missing pay.

Since then, former Superintendent Xavier Botana left the district six months earlier than planned, citing the payroll crisis; the district and the educators union signed a legally binding document outlining how and when the district would remedy the problems, and the district agreed to an outside audit of its payroll system, has brought on a technology specialist and plans to outsource payroll and further train its payroll staff.

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