Portland Public Schools bus driver Lisa Martel gives hugs to children as they get on the bus to Lyman Moore Middle School on Wednesday morning. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Lisa Martel slowed to a stop in front of a cluster of parents and children standing on a street corner in Portland’s Back Cove and opened the door of her brand new school bus.

Martel enthusiastically welcomed each student as they flooded towards the bus and ascended the stairs, excited for the first day of school.

“Hello Lydia, hello Charlie, hello Evie!” she said as they passed by to find a seat. “Hi Ms. Lisa,” they each responded.

“Good morning, Cole!” said Martel. “I got a haircut!” the boy blurted.

Over the past few years school districts across the state and nation have faced critical shortages of bus drivers. Districts have been forced to contract with expensive private companies or have administrators and teachers step in to drive buses or transport students in their personal vehicles. At times they have even had to delay or cancel routes, leaving students stranded without a way to get to school.

As another school year begins, the shortages persist but with uneven impact.


Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district and where Martel works, started the year fully staffed. So did Buxton’s Bonny Eagle school district.

Meanwhile, the South Portland school district started the school year down two bus drivers, hoping to fill those roles by the end of the month. Westbrook also has two vacant positions. The district is rearranging routes and having office staff drive and doing double runs to make sure all students can get to school. But Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia is still worried about capacity to transport students who are homeless or part of special programs, who need to get to athletic events or when drivers are out sick.


Because of low pay, irregular hours, challenging work, a long licensing process and a lack of respect for the job, bus driver positions have long been hard to fill. The pandemic intensified the problem. It reached crisis levels in some school districts. Today, driver shortages are the norm.

The Portland Public Schools pinned its hiring success this year largely on its guarantee of summer work, a rarity in the industry, and solid pay. Drivers earn between $20.71 and $27.26 an hour depending on their experience and the shift they work. Bonny Eagle said its ability to fully staff up could be have been the result of a combination of job fairs, pay raises and establishing an in-house training program. But because no one tracks bus driver shortages or route cancellations statewide, it’s hard to say for certain what’s working to grow the workforce, or exactly how many vacancies there are.

Martel has been driving school buses for 27 years, including 10 at Portland.


Each day starts around 6 a.m., when she arrives in the lot where her bus is parked and checks to make sure it is safe and ready to go. She checks the brakes, the lights and the oil, among other things. She confers with the mechanic if there’s a problem she can’t resolve. When driving her route and picking up students, she navigates traffic, bicycles and construction while making sure the children in her care are seated, safe and comfortable.

“There’s a lot of multitasking,” she said.

Martel has a sharp eye.

With two hands firmly on the steering wheel, she looked up at the mirror above her and scanned the middle school students behind her.

“You have to be turned around and seated,” she reminded one student as she drove.



Martel’s value is not only in her ability to safely drive more than 100 students to and from school each day, but in making personal connections with students and families, enjoying the job and passing that positive energy along to those around her.

“Oh look at all those kids!” Martel exclaimed as she neared a Congress Street bus stop with roughly eight students waiting to be picked up. “Yay!” she said under her breath as she pulled up.

Martel said she drives many students for their entire elementary or middle school careers and that she has developed a rapport with students and families.

“I’ve had this route since I’ve been with Portland,” she said while bringing students to Ocean Avenue Elementary. “I love these kids. Just love them.”

Portland school bus driver Lisa Martel greets students as they get on the bus enroute to Ocean Avenue Elementary School on Wednesday morning. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The students and families seem to feel the same.

“We’re so happy we have you!” one parent yelled out as Martel was about to close the door to the bus.


“I’m so happy I have your kids!” Martel yelled back as she pulled away.

Students were unanimous when asked about Ms. Lisa during their morning ride. They said she’s nice, that she listens better than other adults and that they were excited to see her after a whole summer. Many stopped to hug her as they got on the bus for their first day back.

Second grader Louise Wood has had Martel as a bus driver since she was in kindergarten.

“It’s nice to have the same bus driver every year,” she said. “If you change bus drivers every year, then it’s less comfortable and less safe. Ms. Lisa is kind and makes me feel safe.”

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