FAIRFIELD — Local school districts are searching ’round and ’round for bus drivers amid a widespread shortage.

The issue came up at a recent School Administrative District 49 School Board meeting, where the district’s director of operations, Cheryl Brackett, provided an update on SAD 49’s efforts to find new drivers while implementing a new bus route schedule.

SAD 49 has hired two new drivers since an initial hiring push earlier this year, according to a document Bracket provided to the board. But the district is still down one driver and looking for more substitutes.

The district had tried to attract new drivers by subsidizing a $1,900 commercial driver’s license course through a local career center, and had several people interested, but eventually had to postpone the course until January after several potential students decided not to take it.

While a search for drivers isn’t unprecedented, district transportation director Scott Washburn say it’s been particularly difficult as of late.

“This is the worst,” Washburn said about the current landscape compared to previous years. “This is a national problem, it’s not just here.”

Brackett indicated that district Superintendent Dr. Reza Namin is planning a job fair for an upcoming Saturday to try and attract drivers.

Brackett, Washburn and several current bus drivers sat down for an interview last week to discuss the current climate and driver search.

The district currently has 30 drivers total — six full-time drivers — with the other driving being picked up by support staff who also perform a variety of duties including staffing the breakfast and lunch programs, building maintenance and work on the athletic fields. The district also uses substitute drivers to fill coverage gaps when regulars are sick or unavailable.

Regular drivers can make more than $17 an hour depending on their length of service, while substitutes makes $15, according to the district transportation officials.

SAD 49 is not alone in facing a driver shortage.

“We’re facing that same dilemma here,” said Shelley Phillips, the Director Maintenance/Transportation/Special Projects for Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow schools. “There’s just not enough drivers.”

She speculates that some people with commercial licenses view bus driving as a lot of responsibility, and can find higher paying driving jobs in the private sector. Her drivers are paid between $15 and $16, she said.

Her office has tried offering to pay for part of the CDL licensing process, but hasn’t received much of a positive response to that offer.

Phillips’ department oversees a minimum of 29 buses and drivers. She said there is currently one driver position open and expects a second to open later in the month with a driver recently deciding to leave.

“I’ve never seen it like this,” said Phillips, who has worked in the field since 1987.

STATEWIDE SEARCH

The Portland Press Herald reported this week how several districts in southern Maine are similarly struggling to attract new drivers, despite incentives.

According to the Press Herald, which cited statistics from the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation, Maine has 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 — compared to a national average of 50 percent.

The bus driver shortage is not a new phenomenon in Maine. Last summer, the Maine Department of Labor and Maine Department of Education partnered on a Hire-A-Vet campaign providing free training to veterans interested in becoming school bus drivers. In a press release at the time, the departments anticipated 50 statewide school bus driver openings last year.

The Press Herald also cited data from School Bus Fleet magazine, which conducted a recent survey of the 100 largest school bus fleets nationwide. The results are not slated for publication until November, but an editor from the magazine said nearly 25 percent of the respondents are “desperate” — or at least 16 percent short on drivers — compared to 5 percent of fleets saying they were “desperate” last year.

Washburn said it’s not a problem unique to school bus drivers.

“The driver shortage, though, it’s a workforce issue too,” he said. “I know it’s a nationwide problem, but I’m in the fire service — we can’t get young people. There’s a shortage in that, too.”

He said he knows commercial drivers are getting signing bonuses elsewhere with other local employers on a similar hunt.

Kimberly Lindlof, President and CEP of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, said the driver search has been an ongoing challenge for some businesses in the area.

“This has been an ongoing concern with some of our members for several years now,” she said.

CLASSROOM EXTENSION

For longtime SAD 49 bus drivers Brenda Emery, Jean King and Cathy Dumais — who have more than 90 years of combined experience behind the wheel of a bus — the job is an interesting one with challenges, but plenty of benefits.

“To me, it’s being with the kids — it’s a fun place to be, it really is,” Emery said. “There’s nothing like being with these kids and driving the bus.”

Emery, 66, is from Clinton and has been driving since 1985. King is from Benton and has has been on the road since 1986, and Dumais is from Winslow and has been with the district since 1987.

“All of us are parents,” Dumais said. “So you’d talk to them the same way, probably, you would talk to your own kids, because you’ve had them since kindergarten up through, you know the child, the child knows you, and they know they can trust you.”

“The school bus, to me, is an extension of the classroom,” Washburn added. “It’s different teaching, but it’s more life skills.”

King compared it to “a family” and said she’s received many small gifts from students over the years.

“You should see my refrigerator,” she said with a chuckle.

“It does take a community to raise a child,” added Brackett, who is also a former bus driver for the district.

According to the group of SAD 49 transportation staff, the average age of their drivers is somewhere in the 50s.

“We don’t have too many young people coming in,” Dumais said. “We really, really do need younger drivers coming in.”

The veteran SAD 49 drivers see flexibility in their job. Shelley Phillips in the neighboring school system thinks the job is particularly good for young mothers or retirees.

“If we get the younger people in, I think they’ll stay,” Emery said with confidence.

“I don’t care how old anybody is — come and apply,” Brackett said. “Come and be part of our family.”

DRIVER CHALLENGES

This fall has been a particularly inconvenient time for SAD 49 to be short on drivers, with the district instituting new pick-up and drop-off schedules to accommodate changes in school start times. Brackett’s report to the school board references initial confusion among students, complaints from parents and frustration from bus drivers.

“The first few weeks of school brought several complaints from parents. However, the schedules have leveled out and we no longer receive complaints about pick up or drop off times,” Brackett said in the report. “Initially drivers were very frustrated and many were contemplating resigning from the district. However, since all of the drivers have had meetings with (Brackett and Washburn) runs have been tweaked and are going much smoother. Drivers are not feeling the stress of having to hurry or speed in order to get students to school on time.”

SAD 49 school bus driver Brenda Emery wears earrings with school buses while waiting for students to board her bus at Lawrence Junior high School in Fairfield on Thursday. Staff photo by David Leaming

“Some people don’t like change — and it was really stressful at first,” Emery acknowledged, adding that things have seemed to level out.

“Was it a challenge? Absolutely,” Washburn conceded, commending the bus drivers for adapting. “I knew we could do it, because of them.”

In Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro schools, Phillips says the bus driver shortage has particularly affected field trips and athletics.

She said there was one instance where a bus of students had to wait 45 minutes because there was no one to drive them, and there have been some complaints from parents.

Washburn said he is involved with the Maine Association for Pupil Transportation, a statewide nonprofit of transportation personnel, and estimated that about 60 percent of school transportation directors are having to drive a bus right now.

“That’s not good. I don’t mind it, I like being out there. I’m a hands-on person,” Washburn said. “But if I’m out there doing that, something’s not getting done here.”

Phillips is in the same boat — or bus — having to drive “just about every day” both in the mornings and afternoons.

“But we need to get the children where they need to be,” she added.

BRENDA’S BUS

Every school day, Brenda Emery gets in Bus 11 parked at her house and hits the road at 6:30 a.m. to start her first bus run in Clinton. She puts about 86 miles on the bus each day, bringing the younger kids to Clinton Elementary and the older crew to Lawrence Junior High and High Schools.

“I’m in my 33rd year, and I love it,” Emery said during the afternoon drop off last Thursday. The district’s most senior driver, who was wearing school bus earrings at the time, said she’s not ready to retire yet.

“Nothing is ever routine or the same — there’s always one little thing that thing that makes the day different,” she said.

SAD 49 school bus driver Brenda Emery gives high-fives to students boarding her 11 bus at Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield on Thursday. Staff photo by David Leaming

Along with the driving, Emery’s role also entails being a greater, disciplinarian and listener for the kids who ride her bus every day. There’s also some cleanup involved.

“I have good kids,” she added during the first trip Wednesday afternoon to drop off the older students. “See you tomorrow, Brenda,” was a common refrain as they stepped off the bus.

For some students, traveling on Brenda’s bus is a family tradition.

“She had my dad when he was in school,” said Levi Ficalora-Rose, 15, of Clinton. “She’s pretty cool, actually.”

A few of the younger students were even more effusive.

“Brenda’s bus is the best,” said fourth-grader Colt Robinson. Fifth-grader Zebediah Thomas agreed.

“It’s enjoyable,” Emery said after finishing her route. “Who couldn’t have fun doing what I do?”

Matt Junker — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @mattjunker

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