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Hartford, others find it challenging to keep school buses in service

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2022 8:23:05 PM
Modified: 9/30/2022 8:18:52 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — An ongoing shortage of school bus drivers in the Upper Valley has led to a bumpy ride for many students, families and educators to start the new school year, including late arrivals to school, students waiting after school to return home and drivers covering multiple routes. 

The Hartford School District is currently short at least three drivers to adequately cover the district’s routes, according to Steve Landon of Butler’s Bus Service, a private contractor that provides school buses and drivers to districts in Vermont and New Hampshire. 

Four routes in Hartford still lack a regular driver, including one at Ottauquechee School, one at White River School and two at Hartford High School. 

Some drivers in Hartford are covering two routes, running the unassigned route after completion of their own. As a result, students on the second run have approximately a 30-minute wait for their morning pickup and return home. Students on the second run frequently arrive to school after their class has begun, according to Hartford School Board members, who discussed the busing situation with Landon, manager of Butler’s White River Jct. location, at their regular meeting on Wednesday. 

Several schools in the Upper Valley region are weathering similar shortages as Hartford, Landon  told the board. 

Landon’s branch, which has served Hartford for the past eight years, runs 104 morning and afternoon routes per day for districts in Vermont and New Hampshire. 

“We have not faced a driver shortage impact like in other areas until the past two years,” Landon said. 

While the pandemic contributed to the shortage, by spurring many drivers nearer retirement to leave the workforce, Landon said that the age of driver applicants in recent years has trended greatly toward younger people, typically in their 30s. 

“That has changed because the wages have changed,” Landon said. “With the wages that we pay, more drivers can make a living with it.”

Hartford’s current situation resulted from a loss of four of its regular drivers in August, Landon explained, saying that such an abrupt loss will have a “staggering” impact on a district’s services, given the current driver shortage and the time necessary for a driver to be certified. 

“Even if I have a new candidate in our pipeline to get them hired in Vermont, that process takes anywhere from 45 to 90 days,” Landon said. “So if you lose a bus driver, it’s not like I have another to plug into your route.”  

Fortunately for Hartford families, the district will have two new drivers on Monday, and a third by Oct. 10, Landon announced, at which time Hartford’s drivers will be “fully staffed” and all bus routes will run at their intended time.

But Landon warned there will still be a “serious” shortage of drivers in the region. 

“If I have a driver who calls in sick, I don’t have somebody else to put in their place,” Landon told the board. “We have 160 employees at our location and I could use 220 and probably still not have enough. So we will be fully staffed, but I will not be swimming in extra bus drivers.”

Mascoma Valley Regional School District, which also uses Butler’s Bus Service in White River Junction, has had some routes “missed” this year because the regular driver called in sick and there was not a substitute assigned to cover the route, according to Mascoma Superintendent Amanda Isabelle. Students frequently had to wait until a driver became available to cover the route. 

“Some of our kids are coming into school a couple of hours late” in these situations, Isabelle said.

Assigning drivers to unfamiliar routes can also pose a safety risk, Landon said, in explaining why Butler’s tried to avoid changing a driver’s regular route. 

“Drivers need to understand who their kids are, where they live and where the stops are,” Landon said. “So the threat of us losing another driver due to an error runs very high. And I don’t want that to happen.”

On Friday, Sept. 3 a Hartford middle school student sustained a foot injury during her departure from the school bus on Route 4. According to Hartford Police Sgt. Daniel Solomita, who conducted the investigation, the bus driver, who was employed by Butler’s, “proceeded on its route prematurely” while the student was still in the process of departing the bus.

According to the Valley News, the driver told police he thought the student was fully off the bus at the time and he was checking his mirrors to see that the other children were seated around the time of the incident, Solomita said.

Butler’s is currently campaigning to recruit new drivers, offering incentives including a $3,000 sign-on bonus and paid training. 

In a letter to the Hartford community, School Board Chairman Kevin Coach Christie stated that  drivers in the Hartford district work an average of 20 to 24 hours per week, or four hours per day, at “a minimum rate of $20 an hour.” 

Drivers typically work two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, though drivers may pick up additional paid hours by driving for field trips, athletic events or special school trips, the letter states. 

Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said that some Hartford teachers and paraprofessionals serve as district bus drivers. 

“It works out really well [for them],” DeBalsi said. “They save on their own transportation [to and from school], they do the field trips. It’s a great situation for the bus company and for us.” 

Isabelle said that Mascoma has two teachers and a paraprofessional who are certified bus drivers, but noted that the certification process in New Hampshire is “pretty cumbersome” and “incredibly long, drawn out process.”

Hartford board members indicated an interest in a future discussion of strategies to minimize the impact of driver shortages, such as changing the start time of school to reduce the number of late student arrivals. 

DeBalsi also suggested the possibility of staggering the start and dismissal times of each school to enable drivers to cover multiple routes, when necessary, without impacting student arrivals or departures.

“It’s drastic and might not be popular, but in order to get the children to school, it might be helpful,” DeBalsi said. “We are so short that even if we are fully staffed, we will have an interruption.” 

Landon noted that some school districts in the country have staggered school starts, including Springfield in Vermont, which helps to reduce the congestion of bus traffic and might free up drivers to cover a route in an emergency. 

People in the Upper Valley who are interested in becoming certified bus drivers may contact Butler’s Bus Service at 802-788-4322. 

Patrick Adrian can be reached at pfadrian25@gmail.com.




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