Some Maine school districts struggling to find bus drivers are offering free training, bonuses up to $1,000 and other incentives to fill the front seat.

“It’s pretty challenging throughout the state of Maine right now,” said Dotty Muchmore, president of the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation.

It’s a chronic problem, transportation directors say, but it’s gotten worse in recent years. The improving economy means there are more employers seeking workers, and the traditional bus driver job can mean strange split-shift hours at low pay – along with a lot of responsibility for children and the need for a special commercial drivers’ license.

To smooth the way, many districts now offer free training to get that license, and combine the bus driving job with other district work to create guaranteed work week of 30 hours or more, said Muchmore, who is also the transportation director for School Administrative District 6 in Buxton.

SAD 6 has one of the most complex bus routes in the state – the district is 182 square miles and its buses travel 5,300 miles each day.

Muchmore said the district, which still has several bus driver openings, offers several incentives. The district offers a guaranteed minimum of 30 hours a week, drivers are eligible for health and dental benefits and new drivers trained by the district get a $1,000 bonus at the end of their first year.

As a rural state, bus drivers play a particularly crucial role. Statewide, there are more than 2,300 school bus drivers who travel more than 30 million miles over the course of a year. About 80 percent of Maine students ride a school bus, which is much higher than the national average of 50 percent.

To attract drivers, some districts are revamping their approach.

In South Portland, there have been problems finding enough drivers for years, so the district created its own bus driving training classes, which are free.

In Portland, the district tries to recruit retired drivers to come back to cover some special shifts, such as sports trips, or unique routes such as needing to drive students long distances because they are homeless and living elsewhere, or were placed in an out-of-town school but are still district students.

In a pinch, Portland Transportation Director Fred Barlow and his two deputies will take driving shifts, particularly during flu season and summer programming.

But for now, Portland has a full complement of full-time drivers and the backup bench of returning retired drivers who do occasional shifts, he said.

“Having these folks to do substitute trips and athletic trips and the like has been a true gift,” Barlow said.

In Gorham, Superintendent Heather Perry said they offer drivers a $500 bonus after they’ve driven 300 hours for the district.

“This is my third year (as superintendent) and every year I’ve been here it was an issue,” Perry said. “It’s just not an hourly type of job that is conducive to some people’s schedules.”

Perry noted that once a person has a commercial drivers’ license, there are other driving jobs that pay more that the $11- to $25-an-hour pay range offered at school districts. And driving a school bus means dealing with special rules, security cameras, dealing with disruptive children and keeping track of where each child is supposed to get off.

“It’s quite a complicated thing,” Perry said.

Muchmore said getting the commercial drivers’ license and becoming a school bus driver can take about three months. In addition to training, there’s a criminal background check, a pre-employment physical, a pre-employment drug test, four computerized tests in the permit process, then waiting two weeks to get a date for an in-person driving test. Then you have to pass.

To ease the shortage, the state created a special program over the summer. The Maine Department of Education partnered with the Maine Department of Labor for a “Hire-A-Vet” campaign offering free training to veterans interested in becoming a school bus driver. At the time, the state estimated there were about 50 bus driver vacancies statewide.

In general, today’s drivers are older, with more retirees and veterans. Part of the recent shortage may be related to those drivers hanging up their keys for good.

Even 10 years ago, it tended to be a job filled by young parents looking for family-friendly hours and summers off.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s a profession the younger generation is interested in pursuing anymore,” said Muchmore, who started out as a driver when her four children were young. “Years ago, that was the norm, but in today’s world, both parents are usually working full time to make ends meet.”

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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