Bus driver shortage looms again, with little relief in sight

Jul. 28—Raymond schools Superintendent Terry Leatherman got the call last week: Instead of the nine school buses that usually deliver students to the town's three schools, the bus contractor will be able to supply only five in September.

Driving a school bus has for years been a part-time job, with the ranks of drivers dominated by stay-at-home-parents and retirees looking for a little extra income. The stress and heavy responsibility of bringing dozens of children safely to school were never easy to bear. But in the height of the pandemic, health worries pulled many drivers off the road. Not all of them are back driving.

"We're in an unfortunate cycle where we do not have the workforce," Leatherman said. This summer, he and the Raymond school board are spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to get the town's 1,200 students to school on time.

The problem is not unique to Raymond. It's also nothing new.

Exactly a year ago, the state education commissioner and leaders of the state School Transportation Association held a news conference to plead for drivers. Karen Holden, association vice president and assistant director for school operations at the Manchester Transit Authority, said most districts are in the same position now as last year.

Holden said schools and bus companies have gotten creative. Last year, she said, drivers "doubled" some routes in Manchester. Drivers would pick up students on one bus route extra early, drop them off at school around 6:45 a.m., and then pick up students on a second route to be dropped off at 7:15.

Hiring bus drivers wasn't easy before the pandemic, but Holden said a wave of retirements since the pandemic will make hiring more difficult in the future.

A year after state leaders declared a school bus driver crisis, the state is even more short of workers.

The unemployment rate in July 2021 was 3.5%, according to the state Department of Employment Security. Last month, the unemployment rate fell to 2%. Holden said that will mean more doubling and more consolidation of bus routes.

Ripple effects

Here's the good news: Raymond and other school districts that won't be able to find enough buses stand to save a little cash. Leatherman said each school bus costs the district about $64,000 per year to run.

The bad news: Junior's odds of getting a seat to himself this fall are going to be slim.

To fit everyone who needs to ride a bus, Leatherman said middle and high school students will have to ride the bus together, with high school students getting dropped off at school first.

And the routes may be a little different than they were last year.

If the routes change much, school start times might have to be shifted to make sure students can get to class on time. If schools have to open early, some of that money saved from cutting buses may have to be spent paying adults to keep an eye on kids gathering in a cafeteria or gym before class.

"Worst-case scenario? We're going to have to make some adjustments to start times and end times," Leatherman said. He wants to avoid upsetting the delicate balance of parents' jobs and child care.

The start of school is a little more than a month away, meaning Leatherman and the school board have to make decisions fast.

"I wish I had a magic answer, and we just don't," Leatherman said.

In the longer term, Leatherman said he worries about hiring for the essential but lower-paying jobs in schools, like bus drivers and the paraprofessionals who work with students with special needs.

He wonders how many people will seek out these jobs. Pay in restaurants, retail, warehouses and delivery is so much higher. And the jobs can feel lower-stakes than working with children.

"No disrespect to McDonald's, but the stress level and responsibility level are quite different," Leatherman said.

jgrove@unionleader.com