Lack of bus drivers contributes to school’s woes

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — A lack of school bus drivers is just as likely to move students to remote learning as COVID-19, according to one school committee member.

During a recent Board of Selectmen meeting, Southwest Harbor School Committee Member John Izenour told selectmen the school district is operating on a very small margin of error when it comes to bus scheduling.

“It definitely has been a struggle,” said DJ Whitmore, a dispatcher for Cyr Bus Lines, who contracts bus services for Trenton Elementary School and Conners Emerson School.

There are six people who drive buses at these two schools for the company, four of whom commute from Old Town each morning to do their route.

“If one of them were to get sick, I don’t have a replacement for them,” said Whitmore. “There’s definitely no extra drivers.”

Schools within the Mount Desert Island Regional School System each choose how to provide bus service for their students. Mount Desert Elementary School, Pemetic Elementary School and Tremont Consolidated School all store their own buses and hire their own drivers.

“Each one of our schools has their own system,” said Superintendent Marc Gousse. “Across the nation, we’re really challenged in having drivers. When the economy is good, it’s really difficult to hire for these positions… We’ve never really looked at how to consolidate.”

According to Izenour, the subject of bus consolidation has come up but he doesn’t expect any shift in that direction for several more years. Members of the Southwest Harbor Board of Selectmen have been talking about buses and the town’s maintenance of them when discussing the construction of a town garage in recent meetings. Izenour, representing the school committee, has weighed in on the conversations.

According to Pemetic Elementary School Principal Rhonda Fortin, the school is in good shape with bus drivers. There are two people who have driven a bus for the school for several years who are also employed as custodians at the school.

“They are amazing and consistently go above and beyond for our students,” she said about Larry Alley and Lisa Park. “We also have three staff members who have their bus licenses, one of which has been trained on the bus routes in case they need to fill in. Pemetic is well positioned right now compared to some of the other schools in the area.”

Even though bus drivers for Trenton Elementary School are contracted through Cyr Bus Lines, Principal Mike Zboray has offered additional employment with the school to create a full-time work schedule.

“I have offered for drivers, if they were willing, to go on our substitute roll,” he said, “which helped out a lot.”

At Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor, principal Barb Neilly said the school has also offered drivers positions within the school to supplement their schedule. It has been during her tenure as principal that the school switched to the contracted service. Neilly remembers how difficult it was to maintain buses, hire and schedule drivers and make sure they remained current with licenses and certifications. “It was a nightmare,” she said, explaining that the drivers with Cyr were consistent until last year.
“They’ve been really challenged with getting drivers,” Neilly said about this school year. One of the school’s bus routes has two different drivers throughout the week. “They haven’t landed a full-time person for the number of days we need.”

For Zboray, this year with Cyr has been stable, so far.

“They are doing a lot to maintain the routes, or trips, for schools,” he said. “I know that they have struggled but I know they’ve worked really hard to not have me feel the pressure.”

Even though there are fewer extracurricular activities in need of buses this school year because of the pandemic, COVID-19 is still having an effect on hiring.

“Nobody’s sure how everything is going to work out,” said David Cosenze, the Old Town division manager for Cyr Bus Lines. “It makes it undesirable because people see the exposure level.”

At the same time, Cosenze says most exposures at schools in the state have been due to outreach into the school, not necessarily internally.

“The school systems must be doing something right,” he adds.

According to Cosenze, the average age of bus drivers in Maine is people in their 50s and 60s, an age when many people are thinking of retiring, not working two jobs.

“We’re trying to get more Ed Techs,” he said. “(School) maintenance workers are also a possibility because they don’t have to go through a background check.”

That is done when someone is hired by a school system. And, if someone is hired to drive a bus but does not work for a school, they must pass a background check. There are a few other qualifications as well.

“The biggest thing is you’ve got to like children,” said Cosenze. “You’ve got to have good people skills and think on the fly. They have to be able to drive the vehicle in any weather.”

Driving a bus requires a Class B license, which is for commercial vehicles under 26,000 pounds, as well as a special endorsement for a school bus. That endorsement includes knowing how to maneuver around railroad crossings, activate yellow lights prior to stopping, awareness of the safety zone around the vehicle and how to clear it – making sure no one is around the bus – before they move.

Drivers also serve as child advocates at times, explained Cosenze. There have been incidents when a driver might choose to keep a child on the bus because they can see the child doesn’t feel safe being left at their stop.

In addition to these qualifications, drivers must also have a clean driving record and be able to pass a drug test. That last one has become more difficult recently with legalization of marijuana and the state’s opioid crisis.

“We deal with it every day,” said Cosenze, noting the federal government sets the standards for drivers. “They are required to be drug tested before placement… If you’re caught with marijuana in your system, you’re automatically taken off the road.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we have had to let very few people go because of it,” he added. “I think that’s what makes people hesitant.”

Both Zboray and Gousse offer the sporadic schedule and pay may also factor into the lack of people signing up for the job.

“There is a need,” said Gousse. “We’re thinking of incentivizing a licensing program.’

Park, who drives for Pemetic, said the school doesn’t have a shortage at the moment but she is concerned about what will happen if she or Alley decides to retire.

“We need to make this job appealing to younger people with higher pay and benefits,” said Park.

“Like so many positions in schools, we can’t teach students without these people,” Fortin added. “It takes every person on staff to do their job to make it all work.”

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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