July 28—Raymond Schools Superintendent Terry Leatherman got the call last week that instead of the nine school buses that usually carry students to the city’s three schools, the bus contractor won’t be able to supply any. only five in September.
Driving a school bus has been a part-time job for years, 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 getting dozens of children safely to school has never been easy to bear. But at the height of the pandemic, health concerns kept many drivers off the road. Not everyone is back behind the wheel.
“We’re in an unfortunate cycle where we don’t have the manpower,” 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 not new either.
Exactly a year ago, the state education commissioner and leaders of the state School Bus Association held a press conference to make the case for drivers. Karen Holden, vice-president of the association and deputy director of school operations at the Manchester Transit Authority, said most districts are in the same position as last year.
Holden said schools and bus companies have gotten creative. Last year, she said, drivers “double-crossed” some routes in Manchester. Drivers were picking up students on one bus route very early, dropping them off at school around 6:45 a.m., then picking up students on a second route to drop them off at 7:15 a.m.
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 would mean more doubling and more consolidation of bus routes.
Here’s the good news: Raymond and other school districts that won’t be able to find enough bus stops to save a little money. Leatherman said each school bus costs the district about $64,000 a year to operate.
The bad news: Junior’s chances of getting a seat for him this fall are going to be slim.
To accommodate 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 being dropped off at school first.
And the routes may be a little different from last year.
If routes change a lot, school start times may need to be changed to ensure students can get to class on time. If schools are to open early, some of the money saved from bus cuts may have to be spent on paying adults to keep an eye on children who congregate in a cafeteria or gymnasium before class.
” In the worst case ? We’re going to have to make some adjustments to the start and end times,” Leatherman said. He wants to avoid upsetting the delicate balance between parental work and childcare.
Back to school is just over a month away, which means Leatherman and the school board need to make decisions quickly.
“I wish I had a magic answer, and we just don’t,” Leatherman said.
Longer term, Leatherman said he is concerned about hiring for essential but lower-paying jobs in schools, such as bus drivers and paraprofessionals who work with students with special needs.
He wonders how many people will be looking for these jobs. Paying at restaurants, retail, warehouses and delivery is so much higher. And the jobs may seem less important than working with children.
“No disrespect to McDonald’s, but the level of stress and the level of responsibility are quite different,” Leatherman said.