WARWICK, RI —Nationwide staffing challenges are also creating a bus driver shortage and lack of crossing guard staffing in Warwick, with no easy or complete solutions, the Warwick School Committee learned Tuesday.
Camely Machado, the outgoing Manager of Non-Instructional Student Services, outlined the problem for the Warwick School Committee Tuesday night at Warwick Veterans Middle School.
“We want to be clear that this is in no way an attempt to try to shame drivers or the company. There is a nationwide shortage that is affecting 88 percent of school districts nationwide, said Machado.
Warwick Schools’ contract with First Student, which ends June 30, 2024, calls for 57 large buses, 34 small buses and one van.
Due to shortages, the district only has 54 Large Buses and 33 Small Buses and the one van.
Machado noted the district had an average of 11 Buses without a driver (both Large & Small, a.m. & p.m.) per day in October.
“So, you have to think, if the driver is out in the a.m., they’re also likely out in the p.m.,” Machado said. When a bus has no driver, they can either cancel the route for that bus or combine the bus routes.
“We choose to combine the buses,” Machado said. “Cancelling the buses is not an option for us.”
Buses are assigned tiers, most often in three levels – elementary, middle school, and high school. Whenever possible, they attempt to add the routes to buses where the new stops will not affect the next tier’s routes, but that is “next to impossible,” given the number of absent drivers, Machado said.
Machado said her department planned routes around the available buses to help with the driver shortage and added vans (which do not require a CDL-licensed driver) to the fleet. First Student has also offered bonuses to attract more drivers for the buses.
Committee Vice-Chairman Shaun Galligan asked Machado what solutions she sees for the situation. Machado said the district, and First Student, simply need more drivers. Failing that, she said, the district could increase the walking distance, which would reduce the number of student riders and thus the routes needed to be covered with the limited driver staff.
Galligan also asked Machado if the transportation department could further manage times with additional staggering of school starting times.
“Sure, it’s not going to be able to affect every bus, though. It depends on the route. We gotta figure out, simple logistics, right? You gotta figure out where the people are coming from that you’re taking out,” Machado said.
Committee Member Karen Bachus suggested taking the bussing service back under the school system’s ownership.
“I think we would have no problem finding drivers,” Bachus said.
McGovern wasn’t so sure. She said that the people who lost their jobs when the bus service was outsourced would be the most likely candidates if it were to be moved in-house.
“I’m not sure they would sign up for that again,” she said.
“I feel like if we brought it back within the district we would have the same shortages,” Machado said.
“Warwick was good to the bus drivers. We had a good system. I think we would be able to get bus drivers,” said Committee Member Leah Ann Hazlewood.
Bachus added that special needs students often miss their classes as mapped out in their IEPs due to late buses. She said the parents of those students could challenge the school district legally for violating the IEPs.
Melissa LaMothe, a parent of a Warwick student, told the Committee the bus depots were unsafe.
“Our children continue to walk on dark and dangerous roadways and cross at poorly lit and unmarked intersections,” LaMothe said, noting there were no crosswalks or crossing guards.
LaMothe called on the school department to improve safety for students who ride the buses.
Committee member Michelle Chapman asked about how to make bus stops safer, perhaps with crossing guards.
Machado said the Police Department fills crossing guard jobs. “Like everyone else, they are having a difficult time filling those positions,” she said. She said she didn’t think the police department would put a crossing guard at that stop.
Bachus said the police department has issues recruiting crossing guards because the pay is very low. “The people who are doing that job are being paid what they were paid 20 years ago. Also, she said, crossing guard ranks are older, generally, and leaving the jobs.
“We’re losing them every year,” she said. She said she didn’t know how that would be resolved, and noted the School Committee has no ability to make changes.
“Except to try to put pressure on the Mayor. Is that correct?” Bachus asked.
Galligan asked Superintendent Lynn Dambruch if the Buttonwoods stop and the Ann & Hope Stop could be adjusted to have the bus come out on the other side of the road, “To prevent children from crossing the road to begin with, and maybe identify a couple other stops as well that are similar in nature?
“Mr. Galligan. I understand your question. We’re not going to have this discussion in public,” said School Committee Chairman Dave Testa. “We can do that, reach out to the Superintendent. I don’t, you know…”
“Exploratory,” Galligan said.
“Right, your exploratory, is kind of putting her on the spot a little bit and she may have to get more information. The superintendent is not necessarily a transportation expert.”
“I’d be happy to meet with you,” Dambruch offered.
“Thank you,” Galligan replied. “That’s enough for me.”
“At the end of the day, this is a staffing issue,” said Testa, noting that a possible shortage of 10 people on a 54-person staff has an enormous effect on the ability to do the job.
Testa also noted the shortage of crossing guards is a nation-wide problem, which also affects Warwick. And its not just a lack of individuals, but also a lack of vendors.
“When we go out to bid, we get one bidder. First Student,” Testa said.
Testa said the prospect of bringing busing back under the School Department isn’t feasible, given the School Department’s annual struggles to meet its current staffing and equipment needs. That might cost as much as $500,000, he said.
“I’m not sure how that math adds up,” Testa said.
Testa asked McGovern, transportation coordinator, about two new vans the district was able to add to the transportation fleet. She said the vans provided some flexibility, allowing her to get kids to their afternoon stops on time and to address other shortages.
Despite their apparent roadblocks on finding solutions, Testa said the discussion was important, “Because I think the public needs to know exactly whats behind the problem,” Testa said.
Rob Borkowski contributed to this report.
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