Haddam-Killingworth schools superintendent calls bus driver shortage ‘nightmare’

Board Chair Suzanne Sack and Superintendent JeanAnne Paddyfote speak during a Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021 Regional School District 17 Board of Education meeting.

Board Chair Suzanne Sack and Superintendent JeanAnne Paddyfote speak during a Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021 Regional School District 17 Board of Education meeting.

Contributed /Screenshot of meeting livestream

HADDAM — A statewide shortage of bus drivers has been causing problems for many school districts across Connecticut, including Regional School District 17, with no solution in sight for local institutions or state government.

In Haddam-Killingworth, the drivers deficit has resulted in a re-configuration of routes, and, as a result, officials are left to solve a multitude of problems, Superintendent JeanAnn Paddyfote said at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, according to the meeting recording.

She sent a letter to families last week explaining that they are not alone in the process.

“If you’re affected by it, you don’t really care that it’s a problem statewide, and I can understand that, because it’s been really frustrating for our staff. It’s been frustrating naturally for our students and also for the bus company, unfortunately,” Paddyfote said, according to the meeting audio.

Reasons behind scarcity

Some problems stem from a staffing shortage, but there has also been leadership staff turnover at the company the district uses, Student Transportation of America, Paddyfote said. Currently, there are an interim and assistant manager for the district who need to be caught up to speed.

In order to help the new management, the district has been sending out alerts to families when buses are running late, something typically done by the transportation company in the past. On Tuesday alone, district officials said they sent out five or six alerts.

These late buses may have been impacted by a sick driver, as the vehicle had to be taken out of circulation, Paddyfote said.

The issue involves six open bus routes within the district. Due to the lack of drivers, these were combined with other ones.

Regional School District 17 has 34 regular school bus drivers, but no spare drivers or those in training. The school system has borrowed four operators from other towns. Paddyfote said they would continue to do so if more drivers become available.

Paddyfote said they tried to assign out-of-district students with another driver in a vehicle that does not require a commercial driver’s license to free up a bus operator.

Athletics now can be covered after 4 p.m. and on weekends. Local sports can be covered prior to 1:30 p.m., so some students have been released early to allow teams to participate and not forfeit games. The shortage has been a hardship on the athletics departments, as they had to change schedules and meet commitments, the superintendent said.

Widespread problem

The issue is being experienced throughout the state. In Wilton, a Sept. 9 boys soccer game had to be moved to Saturday after the team couldn’t make it to the 4 p.m. game until at least 4:30, GameTimeCT reported.

“This has been truly a nightmare for everyone,” Paddyfote said.

Regular drivers are now doing athletics after their normal routes and are not getting home until 9 or 10 p.m. in some cases.

Board of Education Chairwoman Suzanne Sack asked Paddyfote if there are plans for state support. Paddyfote said that in a Tuesday morning call with the state Department of Education, Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker said they are looking at five different avenues, but did not specify what they were.

Gov. Ned Lamont is also aware of the issue, said Paddyfote, who filled out a survey last week. She added that districts are being surveyed often about the issue. Not all have responded, however.

Paddyfote said she was told 93 districts answered the questions, 33 of which are not having problems.

Region 17 is most likely in the middle of the pack, said Paddyfote, as some more urban, larger districts are down 15 to 20 drivers.

Possible solutions

Some districts and bus companies are offering signing bonuses to bus drivers, which may create more issues for districts that aren’t doing so. Paddyfote said some drivers may leave the district for more money elsewhere.

Commissioner Russell-Tucker is trying to work with agencies that deal with licensing, as well as bus drivers, in hopes they can expedite training or anything holding a bus driver back, the superintendent said.

The commissioner and governor are also looking to see if any CT Transit employees can drive school buses or if some of the emergency operations vehicles can help.

Paddyfote is hoping for news from the state in the next week or so. In the meantime, Sack asked any former bus drivers or those licensed to do so to help out in the interim.

“There needs to be a long-term solution, because it’s not getting any better, that’s for sure,” Paddyfote said.