MOUNT DESERT — A shortage of school bus drivers has prompted Mount Desert Elementary School to consider paying a higher hourly rate or even increasing the drivers’ work week to 30 hours to make them eligible for health insurance.
The school’s three drivers currently work 29-1/2 hours a week. The starting pay is $14.29 an hour.
Principal Scott McFarland told the school committee Jan. 6 that Leon Sargent, director of transportation and maintenance, is now driving a route because one of the school’s regular drivers is out with a back problem. Sargent hasn’t been able to find a replacement.
“We can limp by with Leon doing it, but as soon as someone is sick, we have absolutely nobody else at this point,” McFarland said. “And it’s the same district wide.”
The elementary schools in Mount Desert, Southwest Harbor and Tremont own their own buses and hire their own drivers. Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor and MDI High School contract with Cyr Bus Lines for student transportation.
“Leon even called Cyr one day and asked if we could rent a driver, and they said they were down seven drivers that day,” McFarland said.
Rick Soules, Cyr’s general manager, has been out of the office and unavailable for comment.
Howard Colter, superintendent of the MDI Regional School System, encouraged the Mount Desert School Committee to act sooner rather than later to address the bus driver shortage.
“We have four, maybe five, really good drivers [in the school system] who are very close to retirement,” he said. “This is going to become a much larger problem in the next couple of years.”
School Committee member John Brown said the solution is simple: “The pay has got to go up.”
Committee Chairman Caroline Pryor agreed that would help. She also suggested that the school should consider increasing the bus drivers’ hours.
Colter said that if drivers are paid for 30 hours or more, it could cost the school up to $20,000 more per position. That amount is the approximate cost of a family health plan.
“Some people might not need the family plan, but for the three driver positions, you would be looking at as much as a $60,000 increase in the budget,” Colter said.
McFarland noted that if Mount Desert Elementary were to start paying its drivers more or offering them health insurance, it would have a ripple effect throughout the district.
“If we change the scale, we change the scale for other schools, too, so that has budget implications for them,” he said.
Some committee members noted that because bus drivers are needed first thing in the morning and then again in the afternoon, it can be difficult for them to have another part-time job.
But McFarland said he doesn’t think that is the most important factor in the shortage of drivers.
“The biggest thing is the stress of it,” he said. “It’s no longer as simple as everyone jumps on the bus and goes home where there’s a parent waiting with open arms.
“We have things like kids going to the Y every other Monday except in leap year,” he said facetiously, “or going to grandma’s house on Tuesday. And who is the one person who is always in the line of fire? It’s the bus driver. I think people just don’t want to put themselves in that position.”
The school committee asked McFarland to bring a recommendation for attracting and retaining drivers to their next meeting in February. Committee members seemed to agree that some type of increase in compensation is needed.
“If we don’t make it attractive, we won’t get the best qualified people serving the children we’re entrusting to them,” said Teresa King-Leclair. “It all comes down to what’s best to serve our children.”