CAMDEN — The 12 drivers who climb aboard their Camden and Rockport school buses early every morning to ferry students to and from school, as well as to games and extra curricular events ( evenas far away as Presque Isle) said Feb. 9 that they will not drive buses next year, should the school boards vote to contract out their transportation system, and their pay is reduced.
The impetus to divest of the school bus fleet for School Administrative District 28 (Camden-Rockport K-8) and the Five Town CSD (Camden Hills Regional High School’s Camden and Rockport school buses) is the ongoing dearth of school bus drivers. The problem is national, as school districts across the country have struggled to fill the driver seats.
“Last spring, we discussed the possibility of needing to contract out our transportation services at some point either this year or next, due to staffing shortages,” wrote SAD 28 and Five Town CSD Superintendent Maria Libby, in a January 19 memo to the SAD 28 Board of Directors. “In talking to the four companies operating in Maine this fall when I was trying to get a route covered, I learned that many of them are in the same situation, and they were doubtful they had the capacity to add another district. In the meantime, we have had three drivers retire. We do have two custodians who have started driving for us (taking time out of their custodial shift) and our spare drivers are all doing regular runs to help us out. The fact is, however, that we are very short-staffed, and it has been difficult to attract and hire drivers. I believe the situation is going to continue to pose significant (and potentially insurmountable) challenges.”
On Feb. 10, the two school boards are convening for a special joint meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the Camden-Rockport Middle School’s Bisbee Theater to talk about the possible approval of transportation contracts with private school bus companies. Bid invitations had been circulated Jan. 12.
But the 12 current bus drivers have declared that they will not drive buses next year, unless they have contracts in hand that stipulate the same rate of pay and level of benefits that they currently have.
“We would work if we don’t lose anything and want that in a written contract,” said Patrick Garrett, who has been driving buses for the two districts for six years. “The drivers have a great rapport with the families and kids who ride the bus. If they privatize [and the current drivers are no longer on their routes] they are going to lose that connection.”
The drivers, some of who have worked for the districts for 25 years, are unanimous in their position, and named Garrett as their spokesperson. They met with Libby Wednesday morning, and remained firm in their conviction that they will not take a reduction in pay.
“We are all united in saying no,” said Garrett.
Currently, they are paid $19 to $23 an hour, and have health insurance, a week’s worth of sick time, and vacation.
They generally take their vacation when the school vacations are scheduled, said Garrett.
His suggestion to the districts: Learn how other districts around the country have grappled with recruiting bus drivers, and beef up the incentives. (Read: Camden-Rockport schools contend with deficit of bus drivers as transportation dept. undergoes triage)
“There have to be consultants some place in the U.S. who know how to hire people,” he said.
A recommendation is due to be heard at the Feb. 10 meeting from a committee that was to comprise administrators, a board member, and an association member on whether the two districts should contract out the transportation of students.
Garrett said the bid package receive by the central office for the transportation contract is approximately $105,000 over what has been budgeted in the two district budgets for keeping the bus system in-house.
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