Story Produced by New Hampshire Bulletin
Even in August, school buses weren’t a major concern for officials in Auburn. The bus company the district contracts with said there would be enough staff to fill the routes, Superintendent William Rearick said.
But at the start of the school year, after the first Friday of operation, three of the drivers quit – some to work at other bus companies and others to leave driving entirely. Then, two weeks later, three more left.
The district moved quickly to pivot. The resulting email to parents read like an SAT prompt.
“Students on Bus 1 will be picked up by Bus 3 and 5,” the Sept. 9 email read. “. . . Students on Bus 5 will be picked up approximately 10 minutes later than usual. … Students on Bus 6 will be picked up by Bus 2 after 2 completes its run. The Bus 6 route will begin around 8:30.”
The district had reshuffled the schedule, but the overall concept was simple, Rearick said: “They had to double up bus routes.”
After months of summertime worry about a statewide shortage of bus drivers, many New Hampshire school districts have had to enter the new school year short on staff.
For some, it’s meant changing class start times. For others, class field trips and sports games have become weekly juggling acts.
But for nearly all superintendents Rearick knows, the hiring pipeline has caused strains.
“When we’re at the meetings, there’s a lot of head-nodding when someone mentions, ‘Oh, we’re short bus drivers,’” he said.
“I hope it’s short-term and then it kind of corrects itself, but I don’t know how long it will be,” he said.
When Oyster River Cooperative School District ended the past school year, about four drivers left their positions, Superintendent Jim Morse said. By September, the search for their replacements – and other vacancies – was ongoing.
“We have 31 bus runs in the district,” Morse said. “We only have 21 drivers. So we had to reconfigure.”
Faced with that problem, the district took sweeping measures. Students, who had once been bused largely simultaneously, were split into two groups, one comprising students in kindergarten through fourth grade and another made up of students in grades five through 12. They pushed the older group into a 15-minute earlier start time – 8:05 a.m. – allowing the district to use the 21 buses twice in the morning to pick up each of the age groups on time. And they divided the afternoon schedules so that the younger students would arrive home later than usual.
“We do a double-run system where before we were largely a single-run system,” Morse said.
By and large, the district pulled it off; the new scheduling system has allowed students to get to school as they return to in-person learning.
But the driver shortage has had a number of ripple effects as well. The all-hands-on-deck morning and afternoon bus schedules have meant school field trips must be limited. No longer can a class take a whole day to tour somewhere; the schools need each and every bus by mid-afternoon to get the students home.
Traditionally, Morse said, “one of our fifth-grade classes goes to the White Mountains for an overnight team-building field trip, and we can’t support that because we need the bus here.”
Sporting events have also proved challenging. To keep all buses running, afternoon and evening practices and games have been postponed to later in the day. But in some cases, competing teams from other districts have not been able to accommodate those scheduling changes themselves, Morse said.
“The biggest impact of our lack of drivers is on our sports program,” he said. “It has not had an impact on the number of athletes who are participating, but it has had a dramatic impact on our parents who have to figure out how we’re going to get this kid to that away game.”
The problem is nothing new, Morse said. The district has faced shortages dating back to 2018. In the 2019-2020 school year, the schools had finally caught up on their hiring. Then the pandemic hit, and the gains were quickly lost.
Roots of the shortage
New Hampshire’s current school bus shortage has been exacerbated by the pandemic. But some of its root causes are decades in the making.
In the past, bus driving was seen by many as a means of supplementing their existing income, Morse said.
“They might run a small store and might be a farmer, or they might have their own financial consulting business or something,” he said. Twenty hours of driving a week, which often carried health insurance, was a strong incentive for the self employed.
But over the years, drivers have shifted their expectations toward making the profession a full-time job, Morse said. That shift has required districts to increase pay and benefits. Districts that have failed to keep up can often lose interested drivers.
Those who do still want to treat driving as a part-time job tend to be older, past the retirement age, and turnover in that group is high.
This school year has presented a new challenge. The threat of COVID-19 has not abated. At the same time, with schools back to in-person learning, the ridership on the school buses has returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“Last year, when we brought the kids back in April, ridership was probably at about a third of normal, because parents were super concerned about putting kids on the bus,” Morse said. “Parents are still very concerned about putting kids on the bus but this fall ridership is at what I call the low end of normal.”
He added: “If you are a senior … and you’re trying to protect your health from COVID, where you normally might say, ‘Oh, I could drive a bus for 20 hours a week and that’s good money,’ as a 67-year-old, you’re not going to typically look for a job where you’re exposed to COVID.”
The difficulty is not limited to drivers. Substitute teachers, paraprofessionals, teacher assistants, and others are in short supply in Auburn, part of a national teaching shortage that has affected New Hampshire. “It kind of mirrors what’s going on in the country and in the state,” Rearick said. “You know, there’s a work worker shortage, for lack of a better word.”
Just as the New Hampshire hiring slowdown appears to be part of a national trend, Rearick hopes any eventual national increase in hiring will have local benefits, too.
Competition for drivers
The driver shortage has highlighted the differences between school districts that operate their own buses and those that contract out to bus companies.
At Oyster River, the district employs its own drivers. That gives it control over how and when to hire, and can allow it to redesign its entire route schedule at a moment’s notice. For those using private companies, those kinds of changes could prompt an increase in the contract.
But it also means the district must compete with established, national bus companies for workers – particularly when it comes to pay.
That’s created a particular squeeze for this school year, with districts sometimes competing for the same drivers.
“What we were seeing is that the private, for-profit companies were increasing the rate of pay faster than we were,” Morse said. “Three years ago we would have been incredibly competitive with the private providers but because of the shortage, the private providers were increasing the wages faster than inflation.”
To fight that, the school board authorized an increase this year in driver pay in the district. Before, the district had a wage range: $17 to $21 an hour, tied to experience. Now, all drivers are paid $24 an hour.
“If a private provider offers $22 an hour and I’m only paying $17, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out where the person will seek employment,” Morse said. “I have to stay competitive.”
But the alternative model has its drawbacks, too. By contracting out to a bus company, Auburn school officials have given up direct control over employee benefits; hourly rates for drivers are set by the company.
Rearick has already sent the company a letter laying out the recent difficulty and looking into what the company is doing to draw more drivers, from sign-on bonuses to pay increases.
Doing that could indirectly increase the district’s contract price.
“I know what they’d say on the rate of pay: They’d say, ‘Well, you know, it’s your contract, blah blah blah,’” Rearick said. “But then I would say maybe that’s something we need to look at to try to amend if it means attracting more people.”
For now, Rearick said, he’s waiting to hear what the company says.
Auburn may have a temporary short-term solution coming: The bus company, Student Transportation Inc., which also services Candia and Hooksett, is currently training three potential drivers for the state commercial driving license, Rearick said.
“We think it should help,” he said, though he added that he wasn’t sure where those drivers would be ultimately assigned.
Morse, meanwhile, said that the salary increases are already drawing interested applicants. The district has seen about a dozen inquiries since posting the ads. It doesn’t mean that the schools are out of the woods; the long road for new drivers, between their application and their CDL licensure, is historically a deterrent. But there’s cause for hope.
“I’m always an optimist,” he said. “I think we will again start attracting drivers.”