CONWAY — SAU 9 finds itself in a similar boat to schools across the nation in facing a shortage of bus drivers, and that reality is causing school officials to think about what that could mean for sports programs and educational field trips.
Two weeks ago, an elementary school in Maine had to cancel classes because there were no bus drivers available. In the Granite State, a task force has been set up to come up with creative ways to attract and retain bus drivers.
“It’s a huge issue statewide,” said Kevin Richard, superintendent for SAU 9, which covers Albany, Bartlett, Chatham, Conway, Eaton, Hart’s Location and Jackson. “I know the Commissioner (of the state Department of Education Frank Edelblut) has formed a task force to look into it. Talking with superintendents across the state, they are having a huge, huge issue finding drivers. Thank God, we’re doing OK. We have a great group of drivers, and Gredel (Shaw, transportation coordinator for SAU 9) does a terrific job keeping everything running.”
“This (school) year has not been as bad as last year, I will tell you,” Edelblut said during a visit to the Sun on Wednesday. “We got ahead of the curve. We locked down some contracts. We made sure that we had our employees nailed down, but we’re at 2.1 percent unemployment in the state of New Hampshire. I need somebody who has got a CDL, who has the additional rider for the bus. There are companies who need people to move product around and they’re paying, so the question is, can I get people who are interested in that particular job of driving a school bus. It’s a little bit of an obscure position because you’re kind of really busy real early, then you’ve got nothing going for a while, and then you’re really busy real late, so who wants kind of that disruptive day as well? It has an extra hurdle so to speak, but so far this year, we have managed and we haven’t had any crisis.”
Last fall, according to the Conway School Board meeting minutes, board member Joe Mosca noted that the board’s transportation committee discussed the shortage of bus drivers.
“Sporting events take priority over other school events, such as field trips, which will deny students of that experience,” stated the Oct. 9 minutes. “Additionally, it will prevent adding of more sports teams as we would not be able to afford the transportation.”
Board member Mark Hounsell noted the average age of the bus driver is 58 and the average age of the substitute bus drivers is 68.
“Prior to the addition of any co-curricular activities, there should be a discussion regarding the impact of the shortage of bus drivers,” the minutes state. (Board member Randy) Davison advised this is the reason the issue went to the facilities committee and we may not be able to add co-curricular activities due to this shortage,” Hounsell said.
There is a movement afoot to make girls lacrosse a varsity sport at Kennett High. Supporters of the program had hoped that could happen this spring, but it has been put off until next year. A bus driver shortage could impact the school board’s decision on adding the sport to the athletic lineup.
SAU 9 is advertising for drivers on its website. The ad reads: “School Administrative Unit 9 is looking to add to our roster of substitute custodians and bus drivers for the current school year, both during and outside of school hours. Pick up a substitute packet at the SAU 9 office (603-447-8368). All substitutes must complete a criminal history records check at their expense before they will be allowed in schools.”
Jim Hill, director of administrative services for SAU 9, said a number of current drivers plan to retire in June at the end of the current school year.
“Jackson has two drivers Bob Kurz, who has driven a school bus for 20 years, and Mark Blotter, who has driven for about 15 years, and they have said they’re done at the end of the school year,” Hill said. “With each retiring, we have to find someone to fill those spots. Maybe someone from Conway or Bartlett will want to move (onto that route).”
Hill wishes there were more substitute bus drivers to help fill the void. These drivers handle after school and weekend trips for athletics and other co-curricular activities.
Applicants must pass a criminal background check, take a pre-employment physical, take a pre-employment drug test, must have a CDL (commercial driver’s license) and then get a bus driver’s license. Anyone interested would also have to take 10 hours of classroom instruction (free of charge), and put in ride and drive time with a bus driver. SAU 9 provides applicants a bus to take their test with.
“It’s not simple, but really not too difficult a process,” Hill said. “It would be nice if we had more substitute and regular drivers. There are others who may or may not be retiring soon, and we have no one to fill the void. You can see the light coming down the tracks. You know it’s coming, but don’t know when it will get here.”
A driver shortage study conducted by the National Association for Pupil Transportation yielded the following responses: “Thirty-seven percent indicated that the bus driver shortage is either severe or desperate for their company or school district. Fifty-two percent noted that dealing with driver shortage is their No. 1 problem or concern. Seventy percent believe the trend of driver shortage is getting a little worse or much worse.”
According to an August 2017 report in USA Today, “22 percent called the shortage ‘severe,’ and 5 percent said they are ‘desperate’ to find drivers, according to a School Bus Fleet magazine survey of the nation’s 50 largest school bus operators.”
Hill admits it takes a special person to drive a school bus.
“It’s definitely not for everyone,” he said. “You’re by yourself with 50 kids and you’re the captain of the ship and you need to make sure your ship is good to go. It can be a satisfying and rewarding job. You’re the first face a child sees in the morning at the start of the school day and the last at the end of the school day.”
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).
If anyone is interested in becoming a regular or substitute bus driver, they can contact either Hill (603-447-8368) or Shaw (603-447-3626).