Bus issues mean long rides for some Mascoma students 

  • Carlene Masciarelli, of Canaan, cleans the lights and windows of her bus in West Lebanon, N.H., between shuttle runs of students from Mascoma Valley Regional High School and Hartford Area Career and Technical Center on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/10/2023 9:22:07 PM
Modified: 9/12/2023 4:41:04 PM

WEST CANAAN — Parents with concerns about Mascoma Valley Regional School District’s bus routes will have a chance to share them at Tuesday’s School Board meeting.

While there have been difficulties with bus routes in the five-town district in past school years, this year has seemed more challenging than others, Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said.

“It does feel like this has been a very, very difficult year to provide transportation to our kids,” she said.

Hundreds of Mascoma students take the bus each day, and the majority of students ride the bus at least to or from school, Isabelle said. The district enrolled nearly 1,100 students last year, according to the New Hampshire Department of Education. Mascoma is in the last year of a five-year contract with Butler’s and will spend around $1.2 million on transportation this school year.

At the Aug. 22 School Board meeting, parents shared concerns about longer bus routes that had some children on a bus for an hour and a half.

“Our morning runs tend to be shorter, but our afternoon runs tend to be quite long,” Isabelle said. Some parents are able to drop their children before heading to work; in the afternoon, students who participate in after-school activities do not take the bus. “What’s sort of happened as drivers have dropped, bus routes have been combined. It really would be advantageous for us and our kids if we could find even three more drivers to drive.”

Mascoma is not alone: Butler’s, like other transportation companies in the region, has struggled to find drivers. There are currently four new bus drivers undergoing the licensing process, said Steve Landon, the manager at Butler’s White River Junction location. He said he hopes the four will have their bus driver certifications within 30 to 60 days and be able to join the eight bus drivers and six van drivers that already serve the Mascoma district.

“Geographically it’s one of the more challenging ones we do,” Landon said about the district. Students at all four of the district’s schools in Canaan and Enfield take the bus. The district also includes the towns of Dorchester, Orange and Grafton.

“Even in Enfield, we have kids who live all the way on Methodist Hill, so these kids may be on the bus for a significant amount of time,” Isabelle said about the area of Enfield off Interstate 89 exit 16 near Whaleback Mountain, which is in a more rural part of town. “It’s hard on the drivers, too, when they have a long route like that.”

There are currently 14 routes — eight bus and six van — that run each morning and afternoon. This school year, Butler’s doubled the number of vans used in the Mascoma district to six. Vans can transport nine students at a time.

“The licensing for those folks is much less (intensive),” Landon said. “It is helpful, especially in rural communities, because those vehicles can often get to places regular-sized buses cannot.”

To help alleviate the driver shortage, multiple school employees, including the district’s athletic director, have obtained their bus licenses.

“I have a significant amount of coaches who drive, and if I did not have that, I would say our kids would not be able to attend some of our games,” Isabelle said.

Additionally, Mascoma officials have relied on Door to Door Driving Services, a Lebanon-based transportation company, to help out. While the company has transported students to out-of-district placements, last school year was the first time Mascoma asked it to cover regular bus routes, Isabelle said. Butler’s covers the cost.

District officials and Butler’s have encouraged parents and community members to consider getting their bus driver licenses to help. But it isn’t always feasible for families.

“Parents have jobs,” said Tim Josephson, who chairs the school board. He added that it’s not unusual for parents to have more than one job as it is. “It’s a working-class community, and everyone’s working already.”

While parents understand the challenges of recruiting drivers, it doesn’t make the situation any less frustrating. This year, Cheryl Tourville’s two children, along with a friend who occasionally stays with them, arrive home in Canaan shortly before 4:30 p.m.; the last eight or nine years, they were home by 3:30 p.m., she said.

“Butler eliminated our road and stop with no notice. There is a bus that is just up the road a half-mile. They wouldn’t put them on as it would cause delays,” Tourville wrote in an email. Her children’s late drop off now at a stop closer to their home is because the bus route that would get them home earlier would drop them at a stop that would require them to walk a half mile home along a road without sidewalks and no clear shoulder where motorists frequently speed, she said.

A couple of years ago, the district changed the way it divided its bus routes. Students of all ages used to ride the bus together, but now they are split by age. Elementary school students are on separate routes from students who attend the high school and Indian River Middle School.

“One of the positives about that is the principals within their own buildings can control their own bus routes,” Landon, the Butler’s manager, said. The change also has decreased the amount of behavorial issues on buses.

But it doesn’t work for all families.

“While I support the reasons for wanting middle/(high school) separated, it does cause issues for many,” Tourville wrote. “Especially those who need to rely on older siblings and kids to watch younger.”

Tourville applauded school officials for taking parents’ concerns seriously and looking for solutions. Josephson said the board is exploring a variety of ideas, from adjusting school start times — currently, all four district schools run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. — to using computer models to plan out routes, encouraging carpooling and adding more vans.

“Nothing’s off the table for me. If you have a good idea for how to solve this, tell us,” Josephson said. “It’s just a matter of figuring out what works for us in the Mascoma district.”

Tuesday’s meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the library at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in West Canaan. It can also be streamed online via mascomaschools.org and recorded.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@ vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

CORRECTIONS: The Mascoma Valley Regional School District includes the towns of Canaan, Dorchester, Enfield, Grafton and Orange. Students from those towns attend schools in Canaan and Enfield. A previous version of this story did not include all the towns in the district and was unclear about where the schools were located.

Cheryl Tourville’s children ride a longer bus route that gets them home at 4:30 p.m. at a stop closer to their home, because the bus route that would get them home earlier would drop them at a stop that would require them to walk a half mile home along an unsafe road. A previous version of this story misstated Tourville's children's bus routes.

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