ELLSWORTH — How hard is it to hire a school bus driver? Ask Don Saunders, director of transportation for Ellsworth schools, and he’ll tell you he’s been beating the bush for drivers for the better part of two years.
He told the School Board this on Sept. 14 after calls of children being dropped off as late as 5 p.m. during school’s first week. With four openings for drivers, Saunders was forced to cover two routes himself because one of his drivers was out with a broken rib. One parent “gave me the dickens,” he noted.
“This is not an Ellsworth problem, this is a nationwide shortage of bus drivers,” board Vice Chairwoman Abigail Miller said, noting that the National Guard was called to help drive schoolchildren in Massachusetts.
Saunders cited drivers sitting home when schools went remote during the first months of COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the hybrid model for the 2020-21 school year.
“When we started the school year in [September of] 2020, we started in a cohort system where we only hauled half the kids,” he said.
“A lot of the drivers have just aged out,” said Andrea Brown, who runs Brown’s Bussing out of Sedgwick. “I still have some driving in their 70s.”
Brown’s Bussing drives Union 76 students in Sedgwick, Brooklin and Deer Isle, and takes peninsula-area students to John Bapst, George Stevens Academy students to sports games and Deer Isle-Stonington students to Hancock County Technical Center in Ellsworth.
“It’s challenging,” Brown said. “I have to sometimes take out my magician’s hat to make it work. But so far, we’ve been able to do it.”
Brown has 17 drivers, and nearly all her drivers arrive unlicensed, she said, so she trains them and pays the associated fees, which run anywhere from $1,500 to as much as $6,000. Part of the deal is that drivers stay with her for two years, she said, noting that nearly all have been with her since 2014, when she formed her company.
Saunders said he is short four to five full-time drivers, but new CDL license requirements effective next February will require prospective drivers to pay a $1,500 license fee and undergo 70 hours of training — 40 hours in class and 30 hours on the road. Both Saunders and Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) Director of Facilities and Operations Janet Jordan said this just adds another challenge to a difficult situation.
So far, RSU 24 has “dodged a bullet” in getting students home without delays, Jordan said, but scheduling for sporting events has been a challenge. For two years, driver openings have been left unfilled, she said. “Our applicant pool consists of one application right now” with three permanent openings.
New bus drivers in Hancock County earn from $16 an hour, for an unlicensed driver who needs training, to around $19 an hour for licensed drivers, with regular raises and some if not all usual benefits. But Saunders said that the part-time hours hold back some people from applying. In Ellsworth, a full-time driver works 20 hours a week plus extra trips during and after school for about 32 to 35 hours and starts at $18.50 an hour. But come vacations and summers, there is no driving, he noted, and so no paycheck.
RSU 24 drivers average about 30 hours a week and also start at $18.50 an hour, with the opportunity for more hours.
“Many of our staff are driving a bus because it allows them the flexibility to do other jobs or meet other obligations during the day and when school is not in session,” Jordan noted.
For Regional School Unit 25 (RSU 25), bussing students in Bucksport, Verona Island and Orland, Superintendent Jim Boothby partnered with Orrington, Hancock and Lamoine to form the Hancock Transportation Collaborative before the school year started and all routes are covered.
“We don’t have an overabundance of drivers,” he noted. “We’ve got a handful of spares.”
Union 93 is seeing “very few, if any, applicants” for its open bus driver positions, with 20-hour work weeks and starting pay of $20, Superintendent Reg Ruhlin said.
“We’ve had student delays at one school,” he noted. “It’s a concern spread across the state.”
To help train drivers, RSU 24 has partnered with Washington County Community College to offer a School Bus Driving Academy that starts on Oct. 30 at the RSU 24 Adult Education office in Sullivan.
“Trainees will prepare for the permit exam and for the bus driver road test,” Jordan said. Additionally, financial assistance is available in return for an agreement to work for RSU 24, along with a training stipend of $1,000.
Whether transportation collaboratives, paid training or more working hours will help the shortage in the long-term or just short-term is probably anyone’s guess but one thing, Saunders noted, is for sure: “We’re good, but we have yet to be in two places at once.”
Additional reporting by Rebecca Alley and Jennifer Osborn.