2017-08-25 / Community News

District spinning wheels to find bus drivers

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

The Scarborough school department is having trouble attracting candidates to fill open bus drivers positions and has partnered with the state departments of education and labors to help fill that void. (Michael Kelley file photo) The Scarborough school department is having trouble attracting candidates to fill open bus drivers positions and has partnered with the state departments of education and labors to help fill that void. (Michael Kelley file photo) Big yellow school buses have been bringing Scarborough students to and from their schools for decades, but education officials in Scarborough, like in other communities across the state, are finding it increasingly harder to find drivers to do the work.

Assistant Superintendent Jo Ann Sizemore said with 19 drivers for 22 buses, as of Aug. 17, the Scarborough school department is three drivers short of being fully staffed. Sizemore said because of this, the transportation department has consolidated some of the bus runs.

“The kids will have no problem getting to school,” she said, assuring parents proper arrangements have been made for each and every child who rides the bus.

Superintendent Julie Kukenberger said a full bus driving staff is critical to the department making the switch to a new schedule for the 2018-2019 school year in that will change the start time at the six schools to give middle school and high school students more time to sleep.

The new schedule will have K-5 students start at 8 a.m. while the day for middle school students begin at 9 a.m. and the high school at 8:30 a.m.

Sizemore said she interviewed four potential school bus drivers this summer, but failed to land a candidate. Scarborough will be teaming up with Bonny Eagle, South Portland and Westbrook school districts to hold a job fair from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14 at Husson University at 340 County Road in Westbrook to find substitute teachers, education technicians and bus drivers.

“We’ve also been doing a lot of recruiting with Northeast Technical Institute,” Sizemore said. “We did get a spare bus driver out of that. (Transportation Director Sarah Redmond) has been calling other communities to see how they are handling it.”

Other school departments, Sizemore and Kukenberger said, are finding themselves in a similar position.

Pat Hinkley, the Maine Department of Education’s Transportation and Facilities Administrator, said there is an estimated 50 bus drivers needed across the state.

Hinkley wrote the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics cites the growth in the transportation industry as a contributing factor in the need for transportation workers. According to a joint report of the U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Transportation, and U.S. Department of Labor, over a 10-year period from 2012 to 2022, there will be job openings for 330,699 school bus drivers or bus drivers for special needs or senior buses, as well as a demand for bus mechanics and diesel engine specialists.

Kukenberger said part of the reason school districts are finding it so difficult to find bus drivers is because of a competitive market, one that requires a specialized skill set, a CDL (commercial driver’s license) and the fact it is not a year-round job.

A new contract for bus drivers is being negotiated. The starting salary for a bus driver with no experience under the existing contract, which expired at the end of June, was $16.21 an hour. Bus drivers are guaranteed 35 hours a week, with the possibility of more.

Having summers and school breaks off, they acknowledge, does attract some people to the position, but many others use bus driving as supplemental income. Sizemore said a half dozen Scarborough bus drivers have other jobs, including one as a pilot.

To help deal with the shortage of school bus drivers across Maine, the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Department of Labor has teamed up for a bus driver hiring initiative: Veterans In School Transportation Program. The initiative offers free training to veterans, or others, who may be interested in working as a school bus driver.

“Both agencies are committed to public service. The Veterans In School Transportation Program initiative is a natural fit with the Maine Hire-AVet Campaign because veterans have diverse backgrounds that include: transportation, security, safety, mechanic, heavy equipment, teamwork, attention to details, etc.

Their background aligns with school transportation and we understand that some Maine veterans are looking for jobs,” Hinkley wrote in an email to the Leader. “Veterans are mission centric and team oriented which is important to school transportation. Veterans were committed to serving our country while in the military. School transportation offers an opportunity for veterans to transition from serving their country to serving their community by safeguarding local communities and students.”

Scarborough is taking part in the Veterans in School Transportation Program and two Scarborough bus drivers are being trained to be trainers, a requirement of participation in the program.

Kukenberger and Sizemore are pleased with the bus drivers they do have on staff, some of whom have been working in Scarborough for more than a decade.

“I must say, with bus drivers, there is a great sense of community. The last couple years they have had an Adopt a Family program and have done food drive for the backpack program. These are things they thought up on their own to help the community,” Sizemore said.

“I think our bus drivers play just as important role and our teachers, custodians and food service workers do,” Kukenberger.

With the shortage of bus drivers across the state and country, Kukenberger can’t help but wonder if classroom teachers are far behind and if that is the case, there needs to be something done, she said to help attract people to public education.

As the department continue to find qualified individuals to be bus drivers, Kukenberger and the school start time implementation committee is working on a transportation audit to look at the school’s bus routes, the future needs, the percentage of the students who are bused and what the number may be in future years. The report, which is being compiled through the help of Hanover Research is expected to be finalized by the end of the month and presented to the school board in September.

If people are interested in becoming a bus driver, Sizemore encourages them to reach out to Redmond at 730-4145 or attend the job fair at Husson University.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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