School bus at Lyman Moore Middle School
Students head to buses at the end of the school day at Lyman Moore Middle School on Oct. 28. Portland Public Schools is coping with a shortage of bus drivers that has officials considering several contingency plans. (Portland Phoenix/Evan Edmonds)
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The Portland Public Schools is considering a policy that would allow the use of private staff vehicles for student transportation in response to a shortage of bus drivers.

The use of private vehicles for school business was one of several outside-the-box solutions discussed in an Oct. 26 meeting of the School Board policy committee. Other possible ways aired to cope with the schools’ transportation problems included an extension of school “walking” distances and expanding the use of public transit to a wider range of students.

Xavier Botana
Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana: The School Department is “actively developing contingency plans” if bus transportation must be curtailed.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said these unconventional methods are necessary for the reality schools face: that they may not be able to provide the best and safest transportation – traditional school buses – to the eligible student population on any given day.

Portland has 24 buses traveling more than 60 routes daily.

Botana addressed the crisis in an Oct. 24 letter to the school community that said the School Department may have to cancel bus routes for some elementary and middle schools due to the shortage of drivers. 

The letter explained that despite offering additional bonuses and incentives, the department has been unable to hire enough drivers to fill its 29 positions. There are 26 active drivers, with two out on extended sick leave and another two still in training who can’t drive by themselves. The loss of any more drivers, Botana said, will result in the cancellation of some bus routes.

The superintendent’s letter was intended as a heads-up for families to consider transportation alternatives such as carpools, and to reassure them that the department, Botana said, is “actively developing contingency plans.”

Among those plans is the policy for “Use of Private Vehicles for School Business,” which Botana said he plans to present to the full School Board when it meets on Nov. 9. 

It would provide an alternative to transporting students via school buses, allowing vetted staff members to volunteer to drive students to and from school or between co-curricular activities in their personal vehicles. 

The Policy and Legislative Affairs Committee, consisting of just Committee Chair Roberto Rodriguez and Aura Russell-Bedder after the resignation of board member Jeffrey Irish, considered the pitfalls of the policy before eventually agreeing to bring it to the board.

Russell-Bedder raised concerns about potential liability, to which Botana responded that the School Department would have to do its due diligence on background checks. 

He said the staff volunteers would have to have clean backgrounds and good driving records in addition to insured vehicles in safe condition. Parents would also have to consent to their children being transported in this way.

Botana said the unusual circumstances COVID-19 presents would also have to be considered when parents weigh this option against the potential challenges they may face in getting their children to and from school.

He said he thinks the School Board will have questions about the policy, but the members know how necessary it’s been to make “clearly imperfect” decisions during the coronavirus pandemic, and they have acknowledged “there is no easy answer” to the issues it has posed.

The other alternatives, although not as fully formed as the use of private vehicles, could also help cope with the bus driver shortage.

Elementary school students who live more than 1 mile from their school now qualify for transportation, Botana said. Increasing the threshold to 1.5 miles or more would reduce the number of different routes needed, and the number of buses in use at any time on any given day.

He said the department wouldn’t eliminate any drivers if this is done, but instead would keep surplus drivers as backups. This would also ensure that no bus route would be abruptly canceled due to lack of staffing, although Botana acknowledged it would be a challenge to entirely remove the option of busing for students within that additional half-mile radius.

Botana also said that eventually the School Department might get to the point of expanding the use of Metro buses to middle school students, and the current unique situation would be an opportunity to see how viable that would be for more students.

He said the department is talking with Metro to try to map out routes, with the safety of students a top priority.

“We would love to do it as a universal option,” Botana said, but the department must make sure students would actually take advantage of the service. A blanket Metro pass for students would cost the School Department as much as $200,000 a year, he said.

The Portland Public Schools has not canceled any bus routes so far and only plans to do so as an emergency measure if it is short of drivers on a particular day, according to Tess Nacelewicz, communications coordinator for the department.