SCARBOROUGH — While School Department negotiations with unionized school bus drivers have dragged on for more than two years, a shortage of drivers is contributing to longer rides to school and late arrivals.
Krystal Ash-Cuthbert, co-president of the Scarborough Education Association, said Oct. 10 that instead of negotiating higher wages, the School Department has spent more than $500 per one-way trip to hire Gorham-based private transportation company Custom Coach to drive students to and from school.
Ash-Cuthbert said the district has spent $11,000 on the service since Sept. 11, and unless a wage agreement is reached, the temporary problem is likely to become permanent.
The association co-president said there are at least 20 buses in the Scarborough fleet, but only 15 drivers. She said the district has lost drivers who have been with the school system for more than a decade because they are moving to higher-paying districts such as Windham, Portland, South Portland and Cumberland.
She said routes have been consolidated, resulting in longer rides, and more children are on the buses. Students have also been arriving later to school because of the shortage.
In a Sept. 6 letter to parents, Superintendent of Schools Julie Kukenberger said the district has lost five drivers since the beginning of the school year and had openings for six drivers.
Kukenberger confirmed Wednesday that Custom Coach was hired to supplement bus services, but said the amount paid to the company was half that suggested by the SEA – a little more than $5,000 since mid-September.
She said there is a widespread shortage of drivers, some of whom have moved to other industries because of the strong job market.
Kukenberger said Scarborough has two recently hired drivers in training, and the district supports a competitive wage. She also said contract negotiations were scheduled to continue with a fact-finding session Thursday, Oct. 10.
Ash-Cuthbert said the association has presented a fair wage proposal with the goal of retaining and recruiting an adequate number of qualified bus drivers, but it was not accepted.
She acknowledged there is statewide shortage of drivers, but said Scarbrough’s problem is exacerbated by noncompetitive pay offered to employees.
Ash-Cuthbert said the existing Scarborough contract starts drivers at $16.21 per hour, and the top wage is $19.62. According to the Portland Press Herald, the job website Indeed.com estimates a statewide average of $16.55 per hour, based on information from 36 months of job postings.
Last year, the driver shortfall in Maine was severe enough that the Maine Department of Education partnered with the Maine Department of Labor for a “Hire-A-Vet” campaign offering free training to veterans interested in becoming school bus drivers.
Scarborough schools have openings for half a dozen bus drivers, and have had to hire a private transportation company to cope with the shortfall. (Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald)