CAMDEN — A dearth of school bus drivers, along with a transportation system failure issue peculiar to just this fall, has resulted in a heightened outreach effort by Camden-Rockport school districts to hire new personnel.
“Base pay for no experience is $18.13/hour, plus full single health,” said SAD 28 and Five Town CSD Superintendent Maria Libby, on Sept. 14, the second week of school and days after the two districts contended with system errors that left students waiting on the curb for their buses the first days of school.
So far, it has been triage for the transportation system, which sends buses to take – and then return home – the Camden and Rockport K-8 and high school students to the elementary and Camden Hills Regional High School on Route 90 in Rockport. The high school students in Appleton, Hope and Lincolnville are transported by the privately owned Luce Transportation company, based in Union, and have not been part of last week’s bussing problems.
That was when, on the first week of school, glitches pervaded the network, which Libby attributed to a lack of communication, new staff and new bus routes. As a result, a number of students were left waiting for buses to pick them up, if they arrived at all.
In a Sept. 8 email to parents, Superintendent Maria Libby said the central office received more than 100 calls and emails about the situation, and she apologized.
“We are working hard to straighten things out – we know we did not put our best foot forward today,” she wrote to parents.
By Thursday morning, the newly hired Transportation Director was no longer at his post, and Libby said: “We have a great team in the Central Office and it is unfortunate it did not work out with Rob Stohlman. We recognize the timing couldn't be worse with the opening of school. Staff is pitching in to smooth out the transportation issues and we have put in place leadership from within to bridge the gap until we can find a new Facilities and Transportation Director.”
By the end of the week, she reported in her superintendent’s report to the SAD 28 Board of Directors that she had been meeting with staff, “as well as Julie Waters [former transportation director, who retired last summer] to triage transportation issues.”
Libby said she planned for a full slate of drivers this week, and updated the bus route information to include the restoration of old routes.
“Bus Driver Christine Annis is temporarily moving into a new position as Head Driver to oversee and manage all trips and most day-to-day transportation issues,” said Libby.
Additionally, Libby reported that Frank Sparhawk was to assume the post of Interim Director of Facilities to manage projects and staff in the department (Maintenance, Grounds, and Custodians).
“Keith Rose will take over lead for the MET project, as well as a couple of other things he is doing,” said Libby.
But the transportation issues that plagued the two districts at the outset of the 2021 school year are outflanked by the bigger problem that the country is facing, and one that former transportation director Waters has outlined every year for almost a decade: There is a severe deficit of school bus drivers, in general, across the country, and the pandemic has little to do with it.
In Massachusetts, on Sept. 13, the Governor deployed 90 National Guard members to train in school bus driving in order to transport students in Chelsea, Lawrence, Lowell, and Lynn to and from school.
“There are not enough drivers,” Libby said. “We are in the same situation. Schools in Maine are rescheduling sporting events due to no transportation, schools are going hybrid because they cannot transport all their students to school, and some are simply not offering transportation.”
Banners advertising for help went up this past weekend at strategic intersections in Camden and Rockport: “Bus Drivers and Custodians Needed.”
And, Libby included in her email to parents: “If you or anyone you know is at all interested in driving a bus to help our local situation, please be in touch. We are going to face the same issues as the rest of the nation this year unless we can find several more drivers.”
The response as of Sept. 14 has been lukewarm, said Libby.
“We have not had much of a response, yet,” she said. “Base pay for no experience is $18.13/hour, plus full single health.”
Libby said the two districts continue to piece, “things together to the start the year even in our district, and I am super appreciative of our crew stepping up to make it work.”
She added: “Our mechanic is driving a regular route and someone who retired over the summer has returned to take a route. We expect two retirements later this fall and need to replace them. That needs to start now as it takes time for a person to train and obtain the proper licensure. I will not be surprised if there are drastic changes to school transportation in the next several years as schools are not going to be able to maintain the same level of service with the shortage of workers.”
Maybe, said Libby, there will be autonomous buses in the future.