Montville ramps up recruitment of school bus drivers

Montville — Candance Northrop's two kids usually hop on the school bus about 7:45 a.m., giving her about 10 to 15 minutes to get to work on time.

But in the middle of last year, "the bus situation became quite an adventure for working parents," Northrop recently told the Board of Education.

With a bus driver shortage impacting the state and hitting Montville hard the last couple of years, the district has faced delayed routes, forcing parents like Northrop to "rush to work."

"I won't leave my kids, but obviously there's some places that aren't easy with getting to work five minutes late," she said. "A lot of parents ... will probably end up leaving some of their kids so they don't lose their job."

Acting Superintendent Laurie Pallin said with 24 drivers, the district can meet all its runs as it kicks off the school year on Wednesday. But she noted "that is because our transportation coordinator, assistant coordinator and mechanic are also all qualified to drive."

The district contracts out some special education runs for out-of-district students, and currently is processing three more applicants, Pallin said.

"In an ideal world, we would also have some cover drivers to pick up runs when drivers are out sick, etc.," she said. "We are still actively recruiting drivers."

To combat the shortage this year, the district offered $1,000 signing bonuses for drivers who maintain clean records and meet attendance expectations; in-depth training for new drivers awaiting licenses; and $250 referral bonuses for bus garage employees drawing new drivers with a Commercial Driver's License.

The Board of Education added another incentive earlier this month: drivers who care for a child or grandchild can now request permission for the child to ride the bus during normal route hours if space is available. Employees who do so must assume complete responsibility for the child whether at the bus facility or on the bus, and must abide by several rules geared toward safety.

Pallin noted the timeframe for obtaining a CDL remains a roadblock to overcoming the shortage. The fingerprinting process, she said, takes about 10 to 12 weeks to clear the Department of Motor Vehicles and state police.

"We are not receiving many applicants who already have their CDL," she said.

School Bus Fleet magazine notes many states are experiencing driver shortages as they head into the 2018-19 school year, with relatively low pay, time-consuming applications and training and licensing requirements often cited as reasons.

Jim Carson, a spokesman for the DMV, said the DMV annually processes about 1,500 CDL licenses, including new applicants and renewals. There are currently 8,670 school bus CDL endorsements statewide. A CDL is good for four years, Carson said.

"In the last year, DMV has reduced our processing time for school bus drivers, cutting a week off from what we did a year ago," Carson said, noting background check time frames can vary depending on state police workload.

He added that the DMV inspects almost 11,000 school buses annually.  

To limit the number of potential hires who might seek work elsewhere because they can't wait for a CDL, new Montville drivers can work up to 30 hours at minimum wage while shadowing a current driver, according to new incentives approved by the Board of Education.

Transportation Coordinator Kerry Tetreault held a meeting with all drivers last week, going through runs and expectations for the school year. Drivers practiced runs throughout last week.

"On our first day, bus runs are often a little slower than usual, so we ask parents not to delay their child's boarding of the bus and to be patient if the buses run a little behind schedule," Pallin added.

While Montville's bus driver shortage may not be resolved this year, this fall the district will receive eight new buses, part of a five-year lease plan approved by the Town Council to replace the town's aging bus fleet.

Pallin said the new buses will ease the head mechanic's workload. She added that the district actively is advertising for an additional mechanic.

b.kail@theday.com

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