CONWAY — A school bus driver shortage in Conway has reached the point where sports teams at Kennett High School and Middle School may not be able to travel to their away games.
“The public should know that at this time we are not able to cover all of our obligations for activities in athletics because we are in a bus driver shortage,” Conway School Board member Michelle Capozzoli, who chairs the board’s co-curricular committee, said at Monday's school board meeting.
Superintendent Kevin Richard confirmed it, adding, “For anybody out there interested in becoming a bus driver, we’ll provide training and certification; we need you.”
The shortage is only going to get worse. On Monday, the board accepted the retirement of W. Denny Cromwell effective Nov. 12. Cromwell has been employed by the school district since Sept. 3, 2009.
“Do we have to accept the request?” Joe Lentini, chair of the board, asked with a grin. “What if we said no?”
“How does this affect our bus situation?” Capozzoli added.
“Horribly,” Richard replied. “This is not good. He’s a longtime driver, and it’s just adding to the bus driver crisis.”
The shortage is not just a Conway problem nor even a Granite State problem. Districts across the country are in need of school bus drivers.
Richard said he'd heard that state Department of Education Frank Edelblut has formed a task force to look into the problem. "Talking with superintendents across the state, they are having a huge, huge issue finding drivers,” he noted.
Gredel Shaw, transportation coordinator for SAU 9 and athletic coordinator for Kennett Middle School, said a home soccer match scheduled with Berlin this week had to be postponed after she got a call saying that school didn't have a driver for the trip.
“I get emails all the time from (athletic directors) who are having trouble finding drivers," Shaw told the Sun on Wednesday. "Fortunately, with my two hats (as transportation coordinator and athletic coordinator), I can finagle buses, but that’s not going to last much longer.”
The "pecking order" for bus demand in the district goes as follows: Varsity, followed by junior varsity, followed by middle school teams, then high school and middle school educational field trips.
“Sporting events take priority over other school events, such as field trips, which will deny students that experience,” board member Joe Mosca, who chairs the board’s transportation committee, stated in the Oct. 9 minutes last fall.
“Additionally, it will prevent adding more sports teams, as we would not be able to afford the transportation.”
Jim Hill, the district's director of administrative services, said the average age of drivers in Conway is 58 and substitute drivers' average age is 68.
In SAU 9, Shaw said there are 15 regular drivers and 13 spare part-time drivers.
“I’m very, very lucky to have as many as I do,” she said. “A lot of the spare drivers are retired, and some don’t want to do the (sports) trips. They’re able to pick and choose what they want to do. The subs are great but can only do so much.”
Shaw added: “I have a great group; we just could use a few more in the group.”
SAU 9 is advertising for drivers on its website. The goal is “to provide safe and efficient transportation so that students may enjoy the fullest possible advantage from the district’s curriculum and extracurricular programs.” The districts will offer free training to full-time and substitute drivers.
“We have had a few applicants for Denny’s position, which a plus, but I’m not sure any of those are turnkey bus drivers,” Shaw said.
Shaw has the utmost respect for anyone willing to drive a school bus. “The job takes a lot of responsibility,” she said. “In my opinion, they are the unsung heroes of the school day — it’s quite a commendable job.”
Starting pay for bus drivers in SAU 9 is $13.25 per hour (excluding benefits), while substitute bus drivers receive a flat fee of $18 per hour (no benefits).
Anyone interested in becoming a regular or substitute bus driver, they can contact either Hill (603-447-8368) or Shaw (603-447-3626).