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Upper Valley Schools Struggle to Cope With Bus Driver Shortage

  • Newport school bus driver Gail McGirr does the safety check on her bus before her afternoon run in Newport, N.H., on Sept. 28, 2018. Drivers do two safety checks daily. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Newport bus driver Diane Callum, 69, sits for a few minutes before heading out on her afternoon run on Sept. 28, 2018, in Newport, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2018

When Unity Elementary School Principal Chip Baldwin found out last year that some of his students wouldn’t have transportation to school because of a shortage of school bus drivers, he took matters into his own hands.

The Sharon resident set his alarm 90 minutes earlier than normal, drove to Unity, warmed up the bus and hopped in the driver’s seat. Baldwin has a commercial driver’s license and is qualified to drive a school bus in New Hampshire, so that’s just what he did for several months last year and a few weeks this year while the Unity school was down a bus driver.

“As a principal in a small, rural school, there is nothing I won’t do to keep things moving smoothly,” Baldwin said recently.

Unity isn’t the only school that has had to improvise or make changes in the wake of a national bus driver shortage that has prompted the New Hampshire Legislature to create a commission to examine the problem.

Many districts in the Upper Valley and beyond have had to make adjustments. Some schools have consolidated routes, rescheduled field trips and sports games and even hired a private bus company to transport students to events.

Some of the changes have meant kids have had to be picked up at a different time, and some are forced to ride the bus longer. For the most part, everyone has been understanding, said Mascoma Superintendent Amanda Isabelle, whose district contracts with Butler’s Bus Service.

“Parents have been very patient. One time Butler’s canceled a bus route in the morning and parents pulled together and offered to transport kids,” Isabelle said. “I offered to drive a school van. ... We are making it work.”

Newport is too.

Community members and business leaders in Newport recently put their heads together and raised hundreds of dollars to rent a coach bus to take students to an event because there wasn’t a driver available.

“We know how to solve it,” Newport Superintendent Cindy Gallagher said. “It is just an inconvenience.”

The Shortage

School district superintendents and bus company officials said there once was a time when they had enough applicants walking through the door eager to drive a bus.

But within the past year or so, the applicant pool has dwindled.

That could be for any number of reasons.

The unemployment rate is decreasing, getting certified is a lengthy and time-consuming process, many positions don’t offer benefits and the work comes with a lot of responsibility, they said.

The position also boasts modest pay compared to a job a worker with a commercial driver’s license could get elsewhere. Drivers in Claremont and Newport are paid an average of $18 per hour.

Owners of private bus companies declined to comment on what they pay drivers, but said they do offer sign-on bonuses.

In Newport, there are eight drivers and seven bus routes. To be comfortable, the district should have at least 10 drivers, Gallagher said.

Mascoma started the school year consolidating two routes as they didn’t have enough bus drivers, Isabelle said. Claremont also consolidated routes for the same reason.

“We try to keep it as balanced as we can,” said interim Claremont Superintendent Keith Pfeifer, who added that the number of drivers the district is down often is “a moving target.”

Butler’s owner Emo Chynoweth said he is down about 10 percent of drivers. Butler’s contracts with Mascoma, Hartford and Plainfield.

He said the company is getting by right now with the help of district officials, who offer to move the times of a sports game or a field trip, for example.

“It’s been in good cooperation with our districts; our districts understand the position we are in,” Chynoweth said. “It’s working. We are in this together.”

School Bus Fleet, the school transportation industry’s trade publication, conducted a survey of the top 50 school bus contractors across the country last year and found that 1 in 4 respondents reported a severe driver shortage, New Hampshire Public Radio reported.

“The shortage is a nationwide problem,” said Patrick McManamon, the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles’ highway safety specialist. “It’s not isolated to any one state or district.”

The Impacts

The driver shortage has had a wide range of impacts in several districts in the Upper Valley.

Day after day, school administrators have to make sure there are enough bus drivers to pick the students up in the morning and drop them off in the afternoon.

The schools’ athletic directors must make sure they can get sports teams to away games, and if they don’t have a driver available, they must arrange another method of transportation, move the start time or reschedule the game.

Michael Gaudette, who is Student Transportation of America’s area location manager, said the company is meeting the needs for its districts right now. STA has contracts with Hanover/Dresden and Windsor Southeast.

STA has consolidated some routes, at least in Hanover, and continues to look for efficiencies.

“If we needed to add buses back (to the routes) next week, we would have a hard time,” Gaudette said.

Hanover Business Administrator Jamie Teague said the district is “re-evaluating” the two route consolidations and may add a bus back in.

At least two parents spoke out at a recent Hanover School Board meeting about the changes and how it has impacted them. At that meeting, the decision to consolidate appeared largely financial, with Teague saying the district is running a deficit and that fuller buses are more cost-efficient, according to draft meeting minutes.

Regardless of the reason for consolidating the routes — whether it be financial or due to a driver shortage — the changes are felt by families.

John Wilson, who has a fifth-grader at the Bernice A. Ray School, said the changes have created inconveniences in his neighborhood, which is near Blueberry Hill, located in the southeastern corner of town about 7.5 miles from the school.

This year, the bus driver picks students up in the neighborhood 20 minutes earlier, a change to 7:05 a.m. from 7:25 a.m. Wilson said “it isn’t practical” to have his child ready for 7 a.m., so they drive to the Etna Library to catch a later bus. Other families drive their children to school. The change has only shifted costs from the district onto the families, he said.

In addition, the bus now is mixed grades instead of being only grade-school children, he said.

Parents in other districts also feel the impacts of a change to their morning routines.

In Hartford, Wilder resident Andrea Mangan used to send her daughter outside to catch a 7 a.m. bus to school. The bus now comes a half-hour earlier, she said, so she has been driving her daughter to the high school.

“It puts a lot more stress on my morning,” Mangan said.

Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi said there have been no route changes due to driver shortages in Hartford. He, however, said there always are “minor adjustments to bus routes over the summer.”

Commission in Concord

In New Hampshire, the shortage has become such a problem that the Legislature created a study commission, which was first proposed to make it easier for a school bus driver to qualify for unemployment benefits during the summer months. It soon evolved into a panel that will look at a range of solutions to the shortage.

Like other seasonal workers who become unemployed in the off season, school bus drivers have to conduct job searches to get their unemployment check, said Mark Raposo, the president of the New Hampshire School Transportation Association.

“That can lead them to another job,” said Raposo, who sits on the committee.

At the committee’s first meeting earlier this year, Raposo said, members also discussed a statewide certification for bus drivers, something that could help with the driver crunch.

In New Hampshire, an individual must be on a district’s “roster” to drive a bus, so if a driver in Newport isn’t on Sunapee’s roster, for example, that individual can’t drive there. In order to get on other districts’ rosters, a driver must go through additional background checks and training, Raposo said.

“A statewide certification would make it easier for companies and districts to assist each other,” Raposo said. “(The current system) restricts us.”

Vermont doesn’t have a similar roster law, so a driver in a Vermont district could go work in a neighboring district without having to go through additional steps, said McManamon, the Vermont DMV’s highway safety specialist. But a Vermont school district may have a policy that forbids a driver from working in a neighboring district.

Becoming a certified bus driver in both states is time-consuming and can take several months, something that also could be a deterrent for new drivers. Drivers also must pass background checks and drug tests.

Drivers in both states must take classroom clinics and get school bus endorsements or certificates to drive passenger school bus vans, and if an individual wants to drive a big yellow school bus, they must get additional endorsements as well as a commercial driver’s license, or CDL.

A Perspective

Thirty-two years ago, Newport resident Diane Callum decided she would become a bus driver.

She lived on a farm, and the work fit into her schedule. A few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon was attractive for the mother of four, who could bring her children on the bus with her while she drove.

Now a grandmother and great-grandmother, the 69-year-old Callum still enjoys where she sits: behind the wheel of a 72-passenger bus.

“I find it very rewarding,” Callum said.

The job hasn’t been — and isn’t — always easy, though, she acknowledged.

Over the years, the level of respect bus drivers get from the students has changed for the worse, she said.

“The easy part is to drive the bus,” she said. “The hard part is making sure the kids are doing what they are supposed to do. It’s a lot of responsibility.”

Perhaps adding a monitor to the bus to keep unity among the children could entice people with CDLs to apply, she said.

Another barrier for prospective drivers is how hard it is to get a CDL, Callum said.

She liked the idea of doing away with the roster rule. If someone is on one roster, then they are qualified to drive and should be able to do so across the state without having to jump through additional hoops, she said.

“Why not help the local school districts?” Callum said.

Helping out and pitching in is how most of the districts are getting by this school year.

Unity’s Baldwin acknowledged that stepping up to the plate and driving a bus in addition to his role as elementary school principal was an exhausting venture, adding about three hours onto his 10- to 12-hour day. He just stepped down from his duties last week.

“It felt good to find a solid (driver) that will fit our school well,” Baldwin said. “It’s also so nice to hit snooze on the alarm in the morning.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.