SOUTH BERWICK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Many Maine students returned to school last week, while Tuesday was Day 1 for the rest.
And for some, the usual bus stop was anything but.
Dozens of students who attend private school Berwick Academy weren’t picked up by yellow buses; they rode on deluxe C&J commercial buses instead.
The reason: The biggest school bus driver shortage in history forced the school’s hand. The company BA has a contract with, Ledgemere Transportation, simply doesn’t have enough drivers to go around.
“It’s hard to go to a school district and say, ‘Listen, we’re not going to be able to fulfill our contract. We don’t have enough drivers, we have buses, just nobody to drive them.’”
But that’s the message Brian Trafton, who runs Ledgemere Transportation’s York bus depot had to deliver to Berwick Academy. The school turned to the commercial line to do the job.
Trafton finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He knows there are many students and parents who rely on his drivers every day, and yet the job openings are slow to fill. Trafton calls bus driving a critical job; the most important in the whole chain of the school day.
“You want safe, reliable people behind the wheel of these buses and just because we’re short-handed right now does not mean we’re going to compromise the safety of the students," Trafton said. "So that’s been a concern for a lot of people is, you know, you’re short-handed so you’re going to pick up anybody who will come in and that’s not the case.”
The state is down to 50 drivers, according to Maine Department of Education Transportation, and Facilities Manager Pat Hinckley. A problem that is being felt around the country.
Hinckley blames “competition for drivers from neighboring states,” particularly in the highest need area of southern Maine.
Laurielee Kelley is the kind of driver they’re hoping to find. She missed Day 1 of school because she’s recovering from knee surgery. She says getting back behind the wheel, driving her school kids, is her calling.
“I’ve been doing this route for five years. And my kids know, say a stormy day, they know that they all sit up front, three-to-a-seat, and nobody sits in back," Kelley said. "(Why is that?) because more than 90 percent of accidents happen from the rear end and my kids know that.”
There are 2,800 bus drivers in Maine. Though they work just a handful of hours each day, their responsibility — keeping their buses in good condition and their students safe — is enormous.
“It is an important job," Trafton said. "You want safe, reliable people behind the wheel of these buses and just because we’re shorthanded now doesn’t mean we’re going to compromise the safety of the students."
In Maine, every bus-driving candidate is required to go through 35 hours of training, and must also pass a physical exam and a criminal background check. Those who go through the training are paid for their hours.
Several bus companies have come up with creative incentives: Ledgemere, for instance, is offering a $1,500 signing bonus, hoping to encourage more people to fill those empty drivers’ seats.
Other districts, meanwhile, are inviting teachers to be licensed bus drivers — superintendents are being licensed, licensed bus mechanics are driving as well.
A "Veterans In School Transportation Program" page is posted on the Department of Education website that provides a call to action, inviting veterans to train to be hired.
You can learn more about opportunities via Student Transportation of America (STA) or by calling (844) 782-5627.