YORK, Maine — It has been a rocky start to the school year for bus provider Ledgemere Transportation — with elementary school students arriving late in the morning and afternoon, a shortage in drivers, and, as recently as 10 days ago, an abrupt termination of an entire route precipitated when a driver unexpectedly resigned and there was no replacement.
But three employees of parent company Student Transportation of America assured the School Committee at its recent meeting that changes are underway and said they hoped to have a new system in place by Dec. 1.
“It has been a challenging start of the school year, aggravated by a shortage of bus drivers,” said Gregg Stinson, vice president of New England operations for STA. “There is a national driver shortage. Right now, one in four school districts are facing critical shortages. But we feel as if we are dealing with it.”
He said in the past two years, the company has increased wages by more than 20 percent, “to reward dedicated drivers as well as attract new candidates.” Right now, York is down three drivers, said Eric Boucher terminal manager for Ledgemere in York. The company uses a driver from Connecticut who comes up, as well as a part-time driver and drivers from nearby school districts, to meet the demand.
Currently, Boucher said, three people are on the path toward becoming drivers. One is beginning and two have acquired permits from the state — a process that can take four to six weeks from the start. After a 40-hour training process, the candidate still has to pass a test. Altogether, he said, it can take as long as three months from the time they apply until they are behind the wheel, which “can make it hard to keep people interested.”
He said by mid-November there should be a full complement of drivers in York.
One of the drivers causing a shortage gave notice of just a few days before leaving the job — triggering an elimination of the route entirely. On Sept. 28, Ledgemere made the announcement, prompting several messages from Superintendent Lou Goscinski including one Sept. 29. Students on the route were added to five other routes over the weekend, and a spreadsheet was published on the school website Oct. 1.
But driver shortage is not the only issue the school district and Ledgemere are tackling. The length of time it takes for a bus to arrive at school is also an issue. Although the middle and high school routes haven’t experienced delays, some elementary school buses were arriving as much as half an hour late.
The solution, school and bus company officials agreed, is to create cluster stops.
“I’ve been involved in student transportation for over 18 years,” Goscinski said, “and I was quite shocked that we’re doing a lot of door to door pickup and dropoffs. I worked in rural New Hampshire. And kids walk. If you go door to door, they are probably going to be late to school. So it’s not just driver availability.”
Ledgemere is “in the process of rolling out a routing software program” that will assist in determining the location of the cluster stops, Stinson said. Boucher stressed they will follow School Committee policy on permissible walking distances to stops: up to 1/2 mile for grades K-4, up to 3/4 mile for grades 5-8 and up to a mile for high schoolers.
Boucher said there will be a significant reduction in the length of the bus ride with cluster stops. “It’s really imperative that we go forward in that direction,” he said. “And we want to do it one time. We know the pain of redoing things.”
The goal is to have the routes completed and published on the Ledgemere Transportation website by mid-November so parents can review the routes and suggest any changes. This was important to committee member Dave Herbein, who said parents know their neighborhoods and should be consulted. “They may say, ‘That particular corner is busy from 7 to 9 a.m.,’ so that’s not a good place for a stop,” he said.
Member Julie Eneman said many parents are driving their kids to school because of all the delays and issues with the buses. If the routes are shortened, they may opt to use the buses again, she said, so she said Boucher should not use current numbers to craft routes.
In tandem with the new routes, Ledgemere is offering a new app to parents called SafeStop, which allows parents to track the bus so they know when it will arrive at their child’s stop. It will also allow Ledgemere put out a blast just to parents of one bus. If a bus is disabled en route, an alert will go to just those parents, for instance. According to Boucher, this will be made available when the new routes are announced.
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