School board voices frustration, search for solutions, regarding charter bus driver shortage

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Jim O’Connell on Sept. 11, 2023. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

MANCHESTER, N.H. – On Monday night, the Manchester Board of School Committee (BOSC) responded to concerns regarding a lack of bus drivers leaving some charter schools across the city without school bus coverage over the first week of school.

Due to an inability of the Manchester Transit Authority (MTA) to continue providing school transportation for the entire Manchester School District, this summer a new contract was made allowing MTA half of the district’s route with the other half going to the private company School Transportation of America (STA).

Manchester School District Superintendent Dr. Jenn Chmiel Gillis told the BOSC that she only just learned about the lack of STA bus drivers on Friday, which impacted charter school bus route coverage for Mills Falls Charter School, Founder’s Academy, Kreiva Academy, Holy Family Academy and Spark Academy.

Gillis informed the board that currently MTA has 26 bus drivers and STA has 13, with a minimum of four extra drivers needed at STA to address the problem, with more likely needed. She added that there are currently four applicants for those positions, and that the hiring process for those applicants can hopefully be expedited. Normally the background check process takes three months, something Gillis said she is discussing with the state to shorten during this situation.

Discussion on suspension of the district’s carpooling policy was also mentioned, which would make it easier for parents to transport multiple students to after-school activities. Attorney Katherine Cox-Pelletier mentioned the proposed policy change that would go before the BOSC Policy Committee next week, but Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig urged that the change be presented immediately.

Members of the BOSC had a universally negative reaction to STA, with Gillis and Manchester School District Transportation Coordinator Kelly O’Brien Hebert indicating that they had been informed by STA prior to the school year that they could fulfill the obligations under the contract they agreed upon.

“We handed over all the information that they needed to be successful and we thought they were going to be,” said Hebert. “There have been a lot of unfulfilled promises.”


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Joyce Craig on Sept. 11. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

Some discussion revolved around resolving the issue. Ward 5 BOSC Member Jason Bonilla asked Gillis what was behind the difficulty with hiring drivers, with Gillis stating that it was a mix of pay rates, training requirements and other factors. Ward 7 BOSC Member Chris Potter said more effort needed to be made to inform parents about the possibility of training to become a bus driver, with potentially using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) to offer bonuses.

Craig warned that such bonuses offered to STA drivers could cause MTA drivers to switch, just shifting the problem.

Ward 1 BOSC Member Julie Turner asked if MTA could handle more routes, with Gillis stating that they were at their limit. Ward 6 BOSC Member Ken Tassey recommended a policy providing more dry runs prior to the beginning of the school year to ensure the district’s busing capacity is ready.

Craig noted the expedited hiring efforts, the carpooling policy change proposal as well as Tassey’s recommendation.

“Every student deserves a safe and timely ride to extra-curricular activities,” said Craig.

However, most of the discussion centered upon a sense of anger against STA. Ward 10 BOSC Member Gary Hamer voiced frustration that there were no penalties referenced in the contract with STA, only an option to terminate it with due cause after 60 days’ notice, stating that STA should not be paid until the issue is resolved.

At-Large BOSC Member Jim O’Connell, who voted against the contract, said that he was incensed not just over the incident, but over the fact that there seemed to be a lack of information over the summer on the issue and STA had no problem fulfilling its obligation to nearby suburban districts such as Bedford and Goffstown.

“We’re 14 board members chasing rabbits up and down the warrens here,” said O’Connell. “I’d love to know what happened after the last three or four months.”

O’Connell also expressed frustration with the fact that STA representatives were not summoned to speak at the meeting, stating that if there were a real part of the city, they would be here.

There was also confusion over whether STA believed that it was responsible for a quarter of the district’s transportation needs rather than half of those needs, although Gillis and Hebert said they were only informed of this assertion on Friday, noting that the agreement explicitly indicated half rather than quarter.

Several members of the board also indicated that discussion on STA’s contact would be discussed during the non-public section of the meeting.

Approval of modifying the carpooling policy was approved later in the meeting for a 60-day period, with additional discussion on permanent modifications to the policy and new associated policies coming to the BOSC Policy Committee in future weeks. The temporary modified policy requires written permission for parents to drive students of other parents to extracurricular events. Additionally, those driving parents would need to provide copies of driver’s licenses and proof of insurance and the policy would be in effect only when transportation is not available.


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Kelly O’Brien Hebert on Sept. 11, 2023. Photo/Andrew Sylvia

Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig released the following statement on Sept. 13.

My immediate concern is making sure students and their families are supported right now, and that they have a safe and timely ride to school and to extracurricular activities, which is why I urged immediate action Monday night.I applaud the Board of School Committee for their swift response to allow for parents to carpool students when a bus isn’t available. This is just one aspect of a short-term solution to this unexpected breakdown with the STA bus services. I will continue to call for the Manchester School District, STA and other partners to find an appropriate long-term solution to support Manchester students and their families in getting to and from school and extracurriculars.

 

About this Author

Andrew Sylvia

Assistant EditorManchester Ink Link

Born and raised in the Granite State, Andrew Sylvia has written approximately 10,000 pieces over his career for outlets across Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. On top of that, he's a licensed notary and licensed to sell property, casualty and life insurance, he's been a USSF trained youth soccer and futsal referee for the past six years and he can name over 60 national flags in under 60 seconds according to that flag game app he has on his phone, which makes sense because he also has a bachelor's degree in geography (like Michael Jordan). He can also type over 100 words a minute on a good day.