Two years after the governor had to call the National Guard to help transport students to school due to a widespread bus driver shortage, school districts across Massachusetts are in a dramatically different situation. What quickly elevated to a crisis during the pandemic seems to now be tenuously under control: Some districts across the state are starting the school year with enough drivers to cover all their routes for the first time in years.
Boston Public Schools, which has historically struggled with transportation issues, is fully staffed with more than 740 bus drivers for the first time since before the pandemic. District leaders hope the beefed-up numbers, which they attribute to relentless recruiting and more competitive pay and benefits, will improve school bus reliability and punctuality once wheels begin rolling next Thursday on the district’s first day of school. Other school districts, including Lawrence, Chelsea, and Worcester, which all scrambled in the last two years to find drivers, also say they are either fully staffed or have enough for there to be no impact on students. Still, competition for bus drivers remains fierce, and several districts lack enough drivers to take all the students who request a ride to school.
BPS Superintendent Mary Skipper said she’s excited to have the drivers the district needs, with more in training. “That helps to ensure that every bus we have is out onto the road and that ensures that there’s a better on-time performance,” she said in a recent announcement about being fully staffed.
While the progress is good news for families, bus driver union leaders and representatives of transportation companies that provide school bus service say that the problem is far from resolved, and that there still aren’t enough drivers in the pipeline to meet the demand in all school districts across the state. Some districts continue to report significant shortages in drivers going into the school year.
James Marks, a business agent with Teamsters Local 170, which represents unionized bus drivers in several Massachusetts school districts, said the driver shortage will continue to be a problem until employers figure out a way to bring in more workers.
“They’re just moving the puzzle pieces,” Marks said. “Nobody has really figured out how to attract new blood into the industry.”
In Marlborough Public Schools, Superintendent Mary Murphy said that despite robust recruiting through events and job fairs, and offering paid training for new bus drivers, the district noticed a real shift only when it increased the pay by $8 to $34 an hour.
Still, the district had only 39 drivers for 43 routes on the first day of classes this year, requiring some drivers to cover two routes.
According to the Boston School Bus Drivers Union’s current contract with Transdev, BPS’s bus operator, drivers are paid $29.13 an hour and receive benefits including paid training, a guaranteed minimum of 31 hours a week year round, health and disability insurance, a 401(k) match program, and paid time off. Andre Francois, the president of the union, said the benefits were a huge part of attracting drivers who could make similar or more money driving for other industries.
“It needed to be competitive,” said Francois. “We’re not carrying cargo, we’re carrying children that can become president of the nation and future doctors and future engineers.”
Worcester Public Schools started the year Monday with nearly 200 bus drivers, almost 30 more than the district had at this time last year. It’s enough to cover all 175 routes and have some spare drivers as well. Still, the district is working on hiring an additional 30 drivers to add about 20 more routes and shorten rides for some students.
Though Worcester offers $30 an hour for bus drivers, John Hennessey, the district’s director of transportation, attributes the hiring success to the move to take all transportation operations in house.
After the district worked with an external contractor for 13 years, Hennessey said, the company’s performance and communication deteriorated “considerably,” and the School Committee ultimately found the company in breach of contract.
Last school year was Worcester’s first running all transportation services internally, and Hennessey said that not only did timeliness and reliability improve and parent complaints drop 76 percent, but the district saved about $3 million in operational costs. Bus drivers and monitors now are covered by the district’s insurance and receive retirement benefits.
But while those districts are showing improvement in bus driver staffing, some districts are still struggling.
This year will be the second in a row that NRT Bus, the company that provides transportation for Westborough Public Schools, was able to provide only 25 buses and drivers for the district — two short of the 27 outlined in the district’s contract.
Haverhill Public Schools scrambled to find drivers for six uncovered routes as schools reopened Tuesday.
However, the shortage in the district, which also contracts with NRT Bus, was worse the previous school year, and two years ago, the district had to partner with another school district to cover some of its routes, said Michael Pfifferling, the assistant superintendent of finance and operations. Until the district is able to be fully staffed with bus drivers, he said, the priority among school leaders is communicating with families every morning and keeping them updated on delays.
“There’s nothing worse than sitting there for 45 minutes waiting for your bus to come that never arrives or doesn’t arrive until 45 minutes later,” Pfifferling said. “Without communication, families get frustrated and I don’t blame them.”
The bus driver shortage is having an even bigger impact in Framingham, which also contracts with NRT. The district was short 20 of 77 drivers before Wednesday’s start date, prompting the district to deny transportation to students who live within 2 miles of their campus.
“It just comes down to not having enough seats on our buses,” said Lincoln Lynch IV, executive director of finance and operations in the district. Lynch said one of the toughest parts of his job has been to deliver the news to district families, an inconvenience he especially relates to as a father of three.
“It kind of throws a wrench into families’ plans,” said Lynch.
In the meantime, Lynch said the district increased the hourly wage it’s offering drivers by $2 to $31 an hour, and is trying to assist NRT with recruitment by sending out notices and offering a $1,500 referral bonus.