May 28, 2020
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Northern Maine school districts struggling to attract substitute bus drivers

Melissa Lizotte | Fiddlehead Focus
Melissa Lizotte | Fiddlehead Focus
Three school buses sit outside Fort Fairfield Elementary School on Thursday. SAD 20 in Fort Fairfield is currently one of many school districts in central Aroostook County in search of substitute bus drivers amidst a shortage of qualified applicants.

With an aging population and shrinking workforce, many school districts in central Aroostook County are struggling to address a need for bus drivers.

Tim Doak, who serves as superintendent for both SAD 20 in Fort Fairfield and RSU 39 in Caribou, said that during the four years he has served in his current position both districts have been unable to attract any substitute drivers. Those drivers are crucial, he noted, because they are called in to transport students on field trips and to sports competitions locally and downstate. Substitute drivers also replace any full-time drivers who call in sick.

In Fort Fairfield, the school district employs eight full-time bus drivers who also serve as custodians. Keeping those positions filled has not been a challenge due to the 40-hour work weeks, higher yearly earnings and health insurance benefits that the district offers. But Doak has learned that finding substitute drivers is much harder due to the odd daytime hours, the specialized training required, and the sometimes longer hours of driving required for special school trips.

“It’s been a real challenge to find people who could come in at 11 a.m. to bring the pre-K kids home or at 2:30 p.m. for the evening routes if we need somebody,” Doak said.

Every day, bus drivers in Fort Fairfield drive a total of 500 miles to transport 525 students to and from their homes to the elementary and high schools. Some of those students live far from school and closer to the Limestone or Easton town lines. In Caribou, 12 full-time bus drivers transport students a total of 1,000 miles a day.

Whenever a full-time driver is unable to come to work, both districts will ask the evening custodian, also trained as a driver, to fill in for that person’s route. That has led to school officials making tough choices regarding the custodial duties on those days.

“When you have one less custodian during the day and then at night, you have to look at the different areas of the school and decide which ones might need to be cleaned the most that day,” Doak said.

To become a school bus driver, applicants must pass a criminal background check, a federal motor carrier physical, a written exam, a driving skills test and a pre-employment drug test that includes marijuana. They also must not have been convicted of driving under the influence within the past 10 years. Applicants also must complete at least 40 hours of driver training, which Doak said both districts have provided for all their drivers. Even if individuals do not already have a commercial driver’s license, the districts are willing to hire them as substitutes as long as they obtain their license within six months.

SAD 45 in the Washburn area similarly offers free commercial driver’s license training for all drivers it hires and provides a health insurance package for full-time drivers. Washburn District Elementary School Principal Anne Blanchard said that currently SAD 45 employs four full-time drivers who are also custodians, with their facilities and transportation supervisor, Karen Lajoie, also serving as a driver.

Although SAD 45 currently does not have any job openings for bus drivers, Blanchard anticipates that there will be an opening in August close to the start of the school year.

“The County is facing an aging workforce for bus drivers just like in other professions,” Blanchard said. “We’ve been able to adjust to having a small staff by having Karen also serve as a driver to shorten the amount of time students spend on a bus every day.”

Other school districts in central Aroostook have not felt as many effects of the bus driver shortage, but are still on the lookout for potential substitutes if the need arises.

Gehrig Johnston currently serves as both the interim superintendent for SAD 1 — which serves Presque Isle, Mapleton, Chapman, Westfield and Castle Hill — and SAD 32 — serving Ashland, Masardis, Garfield Plantation and Oxbow Plantation. SAD 1 employs 37 licensed bus drivers and eight substitutes who drive a fleet of 41 buses for four schools in Presque Isle and Mapleton Elementary School. The district is looking for someone to serve as a part-time bus driver.

With only Ashland District School, SAD 32 has five full-time bus drivers — two of which also serve as custodians — and three substitutes. Johnson said that neither district is in a “crisis” when it comes to finding bus drivers, but they regularly accept applications for substitute drivers.

“At this time we have enough full-time drivers to meet our needs but are always looking for qualified substitutes,” Johnson said.

Roger Shaw, superintendent of the Easton School System, said he has a full staff of three full-time bus drivers and four substitute drivers who serve both the elementary and high schools.

“A constant concern is that very few people seem to be interested in acquiring a commercial bus driver’s license,” Shaw said. “Every district is worried about the general shortage of drivers because any time there is a shortage within a job field [a problem] can transpire quickly.”

Doak said he wishes that more people who are dependable, caring and willing to work with children would consider school bus driving as their career.

“Our bus drivers are often the first and the last people our students see during their school days,” Doak said. “Bus driving is a solid career where you are able to serve children and be a respected part of the community.”

This story was originally published in the Fiddlehead Focus.

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