By Caroline Lanni
FRAMINGHAM – Today, February 24, some families waited outside for a yellow school bus to take their kids to school for the first time since March 2020.
But as Framingham Public Schools starts to bring students physically back into the classrooms, as phase III started today, and phase IV, the final phase starts in March, the public school district is hearing there may be a bus driver shortage despite a contract with vendor Durham School Services.
The Framingham School Committee’s Financial and Operations subcommittee met last Thursday, February 18 and discussed the issue remotely. The full 8-member School Committee meets tonight at 7 and is expected to discuss the issue again.
“We have this issue of 77 buses in the contract and 54 drivers is what they [Durham School Services] are coming up with,” said Financial and Operations Subcommittee Chair and District 6 member Geoff Epstein.
Framingham Public Schools Executive Director of Finance and Operations Lincoln Lynch said, “Durham School Services will provide the District with 54 drivers for our February 24 return. We are working collaboratively with Durham to increase that number by next Wednesday’s return.”
Lynch said, “1,264 students will be transported on February 24th. Due to the recent capacity guidelines the number of riders for the March 3rd return are still to be determined.
“There is a driver shortage – nationwide and for next week’s bus runs we will have 54 drivers,” Lynch added.
“Our transportation department is working hard in collaboration with Durham to ensure all student riders are brought to and from school on time in a safe manner,” said Lynch.
“The lack of drivers and the lack of buses are making it difficult, but we are able to get all eligible riders,” said Lynch.
Vice-Chair of the School Committee and District 7 member Tiffanie Maskell, said, “Here we are again, the same boat that we have been in. It’s getting really old. We continue to pay them [Durham School Services] in good faith that when we need them, they would be there …
disappointed is not even the right word to use at this time.”
Lynch said, “Due to the driver shortage and the capacity limits on our buses we are implementing, eligible students are being prioritized. Eligible students are students in Kindergarten through 6th grade that live more than 2.0 miles from their assigned school which is consistent with School Committee policy and Massachusetts General Law Chapter 71 Section 68.
“This does not mean middle and high school students will not be provided transportation,” said Lynch.
“To be clear, middle and high school students will be provided transportation to and from school based on seat availability. For middle school students, we prioritized starting with 6th graders that live more than 2.0 miles from their school then prioritized 6th – 8th graders that live the furthest from their school. High School students are prioritized by those that live furthest from the school and work in-wards towards the school,” Lynch said.
“We are able to accommodate all eligible students and we were looking to send letters to about 73 families that were ineligible that were not going to be able to accommodate,” said Lynch.
Lynch said the new tested guidelines that came out recently, lifted any capacity restrictions on buses for the elementary level.
“The school bus is the second safest place to be as far as COVID-19 and air exchanges, – first being an airplane, Lynch said, according to professionals.”
He said, elementary grade levels completely lifted the bus capacity, and in middle – high school, if you are in a high transmission area, they limit two students per seat, so about 44 students on a bus for those grades.
“We are not going to that level,” said Lynch.
He said they do not think they need to, “at this point,” since they can accommodate all their students.
“We are looking to increase our students on the bus for elementary buses, from 22 to 30 and then put 40 on a bus for middle and high school students,” said Lynch.
“We have taken the safety guidelines very seriously and have done the best we can to provide the safest ride possible to and from school for our students and drivers,” said Lynch. “Hand sanitizer is on each bus and students and drivers are encouraged to use it. Drivers and students must have a mask on at all times and windows must be open on all buses to increase the air exchange. All protocols are in place to keep our students and bus drivers safe.”
Lynch said they are trying to work with Durham and to potentially pull drivers from other locations to accommodate Framingham Public Schools open slots for drivers.
They are working on drivers in training to bring to Framingham to increase the 54 bus driver number, he added.
Lynch said, “Here we are with 54 drivers instead of 77, but operationally at this point we were able to accommodate the students. With the hybrid model and the increase in capacity levels that just came out, we are able to accommodate our students enough for that phase three, and we are working on phase four.”
“It does help we continue to pay the bill throughout this whole pandemic, and they [Durham School Services] are taking it into consideration,” said Lynch.
“Durham School Services is in breach of the current school transportation services contract. We have had issues with them fulfilling their contractual obligations well before this pandemic began. Last year we heard far too many excuses. We need solutions,” said Maskell.
Maskell said if students do not have transportation to go to school, families should know soon before it is time for them to go back to school, “it’s really urgent.”
“Every child in Framingham should have a seat on a bus, if needed. Many of our students and families depend on this service. Honestly, I cannot believe we are in this situation again. They have been invited to attend our meeting February 24th, where we will be discussing this issue. We must resolve this. Students are now starting to come back to school. We do not have time to spare,” said Maskell.
“So what are we doing to hold them accountable, how many kids can we not accommodate and how many more drivers do we need to be able to do that.”
Lynch said the public school district is working with the legal counsel on this matter, and they said that buses and drivers are ready to go once the students need to go back to the schools.
“We will be taking some sort of action on this,” said Lynch, “because it is unacceptable.”
Lynch said since March 3rd is approaching, their transportation team is “working around the clock to put eligible students first on buses.”
“At this point I don’t know how many students we are going to have to deny, I will know in the next few days and get messaging out as soon as we can. “So much has changed with families staying in-person and going remote and coming back – it is a very fluid situation, and we are working through it. I don’t have an answer right now as far as how many students were not going to accommodate in that next phase,” said Lynch.
District 3 School Committee member Scott Wadland asked Thursday, if the public schools have a backup plan.
“If we end up being short half a dozen buses do, we have a plan to close a gap like that – or are we in trouble?” said Wadland.
Lynch said they are, “working to potentially hire other contractors, but they are in the same boat, and they have a shortage of drivers too.”
“Speaking with Durham, I am confident that they are going to be able to provide us with more than 54 [drivers,] pulling from other locations,” said Lynch.
Lynch added he is trying to work on a backup plan, whether to hire another vendor or not and it is a very “tough situation.”
“I really hope that the fact that they are leaving June 30th is not playing a part in this, that would be really disappointing,” said Lynch.
Wadland said, “It is worth letting Durham know now what the stakes are for them if they don’t find more than 54 drivers, and we should not hesitate to pull the trigger on any legal remedies.”
District 1 Board member, Beverly Hugo said Thursday “a lot of times we have done the back and forth but that was only when we threaten
to take the money away, then all of a sudden their services get much better.”
Hugo added, has the “green light” been given to grab bus drivers from other communities?
Lincoln Lynch said, “It is a green light for me, and I have made it very clear to them that they need to do everything and anything they can to have more than 54 drivers in the city in the next couple weeks.”
Geoff Epstein said, based on information, he suggested to mention that they have been overpaying for what they have gotten, since they only had 54 busses ready instead of 77.
Epstein added, vanpool being an option coming in to be hired to fill gaps for the bus shortage.
Lynch said they could potentially use vanpool, but they are having a shortage of drivers too as well.
Lynch said he has contacted vanpool and asked for some assistance. They said they could assist once they finish their own runs, they need to get done their runs first.
Epstein said, “We owe it to them [the students], they have been through a lot, to find some way to get them to the school and we then pay for it, so we can bill it back to Durham.”
Maskell said, “The urgency is real!”
The bus drivers coming in only have a certain number of days to learn their routes in Framingham, added Maskell.
Epstein said, “It is a disgraceful performance based on our good will towards them.”
He added, “It is a very serious situation.”
Epstein added, “Legal is now in the picture, much as they were last time, we had a failure by Durham to provide the contracted number of drivers. There will be a School Committee executive session on February 24, 2021, followed by a regular School Committee meeting.
Durham will be a focus in both.”
“I would say things should be much clearer by the end of the School Committee meeting on the evening of February 24,” said Epstein.
Lynch said, “There has been constant collaborative conversation between Durham, our Transportation Department and myself regarding the driver shortage. In an attempt to problem solve and think outside the box, other transportation vendors have been contacted to see if we
can increase the number of students, we can offer transportation to.”
Lynch said, “To increase transportation options for our families even further, we have been in contact with the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority [MWRTA] to see how our students could utilize their services. Our hope is that Durham can problem solve with us and we can
accommodate as many of our students as possible through our contracted services with them.”
Chair of the Framingham School Committee and District 4 member Adam Freudberg, said, “Durham School Services has a contract with the Mayor and City of Framingham to provide school bus transportation, and must completely fulfill their obligation.”
“On Wednesday, a meeting is planned with the City Solicitor, Mayor, and School Committee regarding Durham’s breach of the current school transportation services contract, followed by an agenda item at the School Committee meeting where Durham has been invited to attend,” he added.
Freudberg said, “It is important that Durham shows up with solutions, a plan to fix the problem they created, and acts with a no excuses mentality in all they do. We have a common goal for them to meet their contractually obligated commitment and provide transportation for our school district’s students and families.”
Director of Communications at Durham School Services Edward Flavin said, “We are excited to begin in-person classes tomorrow, and we are committed to getting students to school safe, on time, and ready to learn.”
Flavin said last night, February 23, “We begin 31 routes tomorrow throughout the Framingham community and are fully staffed for these routes. Next week we will be adding more routes as well. “
“We are always looking for great drivers, and anyone who may be interested may apply at careers.nellc.com,” he added.
Caroline Lanni is a 2021 spring SOURCE intern. Lanni is a senior communications major with a minor in journalism at Framingham State University. She wants to pursue a media career in broadcast journalism. She is a member of the dance team at Framingham State.