Uncertainty still pervades the push for a new transportation model for the Essex Westford School District due to a familiar question: Who will drive the buses?

Chief operating officer Brian Donahue said the district anticipates adding seven new routes to accommodate busing for Essex Jct. students this year, down from a previous estimate of 11. But seven routes mean seven drivers, and if last year is any indicator, that might still be a problem.

“There wasn’t a single resident of Essex Jct., Essex Town or Westford that even inquired about being a bus driver the last time we recruited,” Donahue said at a school board meeting last Tuesday.

He said the issue plagues communities all over the nation. The lack of interest eventually quashed the district’s plan to expand busing in the village last year.

Since then, Donahue said, the district has gone great lengths to entice residents and surrounding community members to apply by increasing starting wages to $20 per hour, adding flexibility for drivers to choose morning or afternoon shifts and offering paid training, sign-on and referral bonuses.

Donahue hopes people will apply this time but said EWSD needs a contingency plan to answer the lingering worry: What if seven new drivers aren’t hired in time?

“I know why people are asking that question,” Donahue said. “I need help understanding how you answer it.”

He planned on hosting a public brainstorming meeting on Wednesday to get community input on the issue.

Meanwhile, the district has unveiled a handful of other changes related to transportation, including newly
proposed walking zones that have raised parent concerns.

Originally covered by circles with radii of .5, 1 and 1.5 miles, the walking zones included many streets where walking is difficult because of lacking infrastructure or because actual routes were longer than intended.

Those circular zones were updated to include more user-friendly paths that increase eligibility for busing, but the boundaries are still in the working stages and will be finalized later this summer, Donahue said.

“When we do the final boundaries, we’re not going to have a situation where a portion of one street of a neighborhood is within a walking boundary and the rest of the neighborhood isn’t,” Donahue explained. “There will be common sense that will prevail.”

Some parents have also voiced concerns about kindergarteners and first-graders walking to school, but Donahue assures they surely can – with the right infrastructure.

He suggested future collaboration with the public works department will create more pedestrian-friendly areas of the town and village.

“What if we stopped thinking of the school district and the municipality as completely separate and started thinking, ‘Wow, could we get two birds with one stone by leveraging some of our focus towards certain areas and creating more friendly pedestrian paths?’” Donahue suggested.

“If we can do that and find more efficiency in our busing to save costs on one side and invest on the other, then as a whole community we benefit,” he said.

However, on a popular social media public forum, parents have questioned the logistics of children of any age walking to school without a solid plan to improve infrastructure. Donahue says students who don’t have a safe walking route can take the bus, but he still hopes to improve walkability in the walking zones.

“I come with the assumption that with the town, we can phase things over time and use common sense and not put kids in danger,” he said.

The district is also planning a few changes aimed at optimizing the busing system.

School officials are attempting to streamline bus routes with GPS routing and a compatible app for parents and students, and a July ridership survey will evaluate when parents expect their kids to ride the bus.

Donahue said that data will be used to shorten routes to and from school. Parents can change their children’s routes up to three times a year to accommodate any schedule changes, he added.

Donahue shared this news two months after school leaders rolled out new start and stop times for EWSD’s 10 schools.

Those times may be altered slightly to mesh with the final transportation plan, Donahue told The Reporter in May. But he didn’t expect any dramatic changes, noting the point to make sure transportation doesn’t dictate the learning model.

Donahue readily admits the first few weeks of school will be “clumsy” and “chaotic” under the new transportation system, but said he’s confident it will be successful.

“We’ve been trying to do this in a responsive way for the community,” he said. “While it doesn’t work for every single person, the intent is to find the best solution possible.”

That won’t arise overnight, however, and will take time to be developed.

“I can’t guarantee an outcome,” Donahue said. “I can only attest to the preparation.”