Fewer students than initially planned will receive bus transportation to Essex Westford School District this school year.
Such was the announcement from chief operating officer Brian Donahue on Wednesday morning, one that comes just two weeks before the start of school.
Plans have unexpectedly changed since the school board meeting on August 7, a discussion The Reporter reported on in this week’s paper.
Donahue said several bus routes were nixed from the original plan for the Aug. 29 school start date. Now, only Essex Elementary, Founders Memorial and Essex Middle schools will have busing provided by Mountain Transit.
Essex High School will have no busing, but Westford students K-12 will be bused because a different transportation vendor serves that town, Donahue said.
The discrepancy stems from a miscommunication between Mountain Transit and the EWSD transportation team, he said. EHS will get bus services once drivers become available. EWSD will then look to expand service to Essex Jct. K-12 students, prioritizing by age, proximity to the school and access to pedestrian infrastructure, Donahue said.
Donahue said the biggest challenge for the district is relying on the transportation vendor, Mountain Transit, to come through on hiring enough drivers.
“The process ends up being much more under their control and ultimately under the applicants’,” Donahue said. “While we found we were able to generate dozens of leads and now have at least nine [drivers] in the pipeline that are going through training and testing, they’ve had a tougher time with their own recruitment.”
Donahue noted the regional, statewide and national bus driver shortage has made recruitment challenging. He said EWSD offered incentives to attract applicants, including higher starting wages, paid training time and starting and referral bonuses, but the split shifts and long training process makes hiring drivers difficult.
“Realistically [candidates] can find higher-paying, full-time jobs with garbage companies or trucking companies,” EWSD board member Patrick Murray said. “The pool that we’re pulling from is much more narrow in scope, and it has a lot of competition in it.”
While EWSD works with Mountain Transit, it is also promoting other options for students to make it to school safely, including biking, walking and using public transportation.
On the first day of school, EHS students will be able to access Green Mountain Transit route No. 2 in Essex Jct. and No. 4 in Essex Center for free to travel to and from school and school-related events Monday through Saturday.
Additionally, the district will continue to fund all existing crossing guard positions to keep pedestrian infrastructure and continue encouraging walking to school.
Parents are concerned about the changes coming so close to the beginning of the school year and are scrambling to figure out alternatives.
“[The district has] been terrible about communicating with parents. They sent this email to us at 5:05 p.m. and ran out the doors so they didn’t have to deal with any angry phone calls or emails,” Tiffany LeClair wrote in a message to The Reporter. “And to wait until two weeks before school is totally unacceptable.”
LeClair lives in Essex Town and has a freshman entering EHS this year. They live three miles from the high school and one mile from the GMT bus stop. LeClair said due to the lack of sidewalks on part of Route 15, her children can’t walk or bike to school.
“My husband and I work full-time and leave home at 5:30 a.m. every day,” LeClair said. “I cannot bring my child to school every day and still keep my job.”
EWSD officials acknowledged parents’ “frustration and disappointment” with the situation in a post on the district’s website.
“We have communicated conflicting messages over the last week, compounding confusion and damaging the trust you have in your district,” it reads. “Superintendent Cobb and the leadership team are working to ensure that more accurate and more timely information is shared going forward.”
Getting drivers is still the top priority for the EWSD, Donahue said, adding the district wants to expedite the process in the future by training drivers as soon as they become available instead of waiting until the first day of school.
Board member Murray had criticized the administration at the Aug. 7 meeting, saying the busing plan is inequitable for Essex Jct. residents, who continue to pay for transportation and don’t receive it. This week, he told The Reporter the issue is a work in progress.
“It’s not something that we’re going to put on hold and then we’ll revisit it in the spring,” he said. “We’re just going to keep going until we can get these filled.”
EWSD’s transportation team will hold a public meeting Tuesday, Aug. 21 at 5 p.m. in the EHS cafeteria where officials will present an update and field questions and concerns from parents.