Portland schools continue outside-the-box approach to bus driver shortage

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Portland Public Schools will offer financial incentives to bus drivers and more transportation options for students as it navigates a shortage of bus drivers.

The School Department has few backup drivers and has said it may have to cancel bus routes if drivers are unavailable on any given day. The first of these cancellations happened Monday, Nov. 15, affecting nearly 150 students from Talbot and Rowe elementary schools, and Lincoln Middle School. A department representative on Wednesday said alternative transportation was arranged for eight students who missed school as a result of the cancellation.

The School Board was expected to vote on proposed policies and incentives on Tuesday, Nov. 16 (after the Phoenix went to press), including the use of private vehicles to transport students and bonuses to attract and retain bus drivers.

Tim Miller, bus driver for Portland Public Schools, behind the wheel of a bus in August. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

The offers include a $3,000 signing bonus and a $3,000 retention bonus for new drivers, as well as a $1,000 referral bonus to department employees who refer a licensed driver. The bonuses would become payable on June 30, 2022, and only apply if drivers remain on staff through that date.

In addition, a list is being compiled of volunteer school employees who would work as substitute drivers on an as-needed basis.

There is also an agreement with Metro to allow middle school students to use public buses on any day their bus route is canceled. This benefit would also be available for elementary school students accompanied by an adult.

In addition to the transportation strategies, a program to provide meals to quarantined students is set to launch on Monday, Nov. 22. A group of 35 volunteers will be available to deliver meals to students who must miss school due to COVID-19; parents will be asked if they require the free meal delivery when they are notified their students must stay home. 

A Nov. 15 newsletter sent to the school community provided details of the policy proposals and included instructions for using Metro buses.

On Tuesday, the School Board was also expected to suggest a change to the Charter Commission that would allow the board to nominate members for interim positions if the board has a seat that will be empty for more than 60 days.

Three of the School Board’s nine seats are currently vacant and won’t be filled until the next election in June 2022.

School Board Chair Emily Figdor praised the work the department has done adapting to the driver shortage and highlighted the endeavor to achieve equity in academics during her State of the Schools Address on Monday night.

Figdor acknowledged that there’s much more work to be done to make Portland education equitable for all students, but said the School Board is committed to getting it done.

“As Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, equity is the centerpiece of everything we do,” she said.

One idea in the interest of equity was discussed last week: voting to remove the requirement of an Advanced Placement exam for students who enroll in those classes.

In theory, this would open up the opportunity for more students to have access to challenging and engaging coursework. According to the data presented, students who take more AP courses are more likely to enroll and persist at a four-year college.

The goal of the recommendation is to remove all barriers to students getting involved in challenging courses.

Figdor said keeping everyone safe and students learning has been the first priority for the School Department. She thanked all Portland Public Schools staff for their commitment to that cause.

“The challenges that we face as a school district are not easy,” she said. “However, I’m confident that working together with (the City Council) and our entire PPS community, we will be able to confront whatever curveballs this pandemic throws us next.”

The School Board was also expected to conduct an informal vote to choose its next chair on Nov. 16. The expectation is that chairs serve for two years, so Figdor is likely to retain the leadership role.

“I am so optimistic about what we can accomplish together for the children of Portland in 2022,” she said.

Updated Nov. 17 with information about the city’s first school bus route cancellation.