FRAMINGHAM – On the first day of school, Framingham’s contracted bus company NRT Inc. was short 17 drivers for the public school district’s 77 routes.
Five weeks later on October 5, NRT still only has 60 bus drivers and is short 17 drivers for its contracted 77 routes.
That means, some students who want a seat on a school bus to & from their school are still being told there is no seat available.
It also means that some students are regularly showing up after the start of the school day, And the majority of those students showing up late to school live on the South side of the City.
In September, it was estimated about 800 students who wanted a seat on a school bus were told to find other means of transportation to get to and from their school.
As of October 4, about 650 students are still without a seat, who requested one, said Framingham Public Schools Executive Director of Finance and Operations Lincoln Lynch IV.
To put that in perspective, that is roughly the entire student population at both Stapleton Elementary School AND King Elementary School.
“Approximately 650 ineligible students that requested a bus have not received a seat but the transportation department is working hard to assign eligible and ineligible students on a daily basis if buses have available seats. Ineligible students are those in Kindergarten through sixth grade that live within two miles of their assigned school and all seventh through twelve graders. We are transporting 2,090 ineligible students in addition to all eligible students,” said Lynch to SOURCE.
“Eligible students are Kindergarten through grade six students that live over two miles from their assigned school. Eligible students are the only students we are required to transport by law and School Committee policy but we are committed to put every ineligible student on a bus that we can. All eligible students that registered on time at the start of the school year have been offered a seat. Currently, there may be some eligible students not being transported due to recently joining the District or due to a recent address change but these students will receive a seat,” explained Lynch.
NRT told the School Committee in September it had 10 bus drivers in the “pipeline” that they hoped to have driving school buses soon.
But 5 weeks into the 2022-23 school year, and Framingham is still at the same 60 bus drivers it had to start the school year.
“With a national shortage of school bus drivers, NRT Bus has launched several recruiting efforts and made significant progress to recruit more bus and van drivers to support the families and students we proudly serve. This includes opening a new, bilingual recruitment and training center, offering free CDL training, providing competitive wages, hiring bonuses, paid training and hosting several community events for on-the-spot hiring, including an event in Framingham. We are in constant communication with our school districts, and are working on additional planning to ensure that students are transported safely to and from school each day, said Tim Sheehan with NRT Bus, in a statement to SOURCE.
Over the summer, Beacon Mobility launched a new Recruiting & Training Center in Lawrence and the company has offered a $5,000 signing bonus for school bus drivers and a $4,000 bonus for current employees to get their CDL License to drive a school bus, said NRT to SOURCE.
“The bus driver shortage impacting the city is nothing short of terrible, stressful, and impactful,” said School Committee Chair Priscila Sousa and School Committee Finance Subcommittee Chair Adam Freudberg, in a joint statement to SOURCE.
“Already down 10 drivers last school year, the vendor NRT right before school started let the City know they are down another 7. While they reported on September 7 that 10 new hires are in the training pipeline process, not one new driver has begun to work in Framingham as of October 5. Something continues to be wrong with the NRT onboarding process, as it to date has not been results and data driven,” said Freudberg & Sousa in a joint statement.
The 9-member School Committee has been advocating for immediate solutions, the two School Committee members said.
“The Committee has allocated resources by unanimously approving a new incentive to reward district employees with financial incentives for recommending candidates for vacant bus driver and educator positions. The District will be announcing details in the coming days,” said Sousa & Freudberg on October 5, in response to questions from the digital news outlet.
“What it will take to fix this crisis though beyond city officials advocating is direct action by NRT. They need to fill their employee vacancies with constant recruitment events in the MetroWest region. They need to reform their training procedures so when they tell us they have 10 drivers in the hiring pipeline to begin soon – that 10 drivers actually begin working. The City needs to both grant them the contractual flexibility under Articles 6 and 11 to hire replacement vendors paid for by NRT, and strongly encourage that they use these tools until they are fully staffed. I want NRT to be successful and fulfill their contractually obligated commitment so the city’s students who want seats on the bus actually get seats on the bus,” said Sousa & Freudberg in a joint statement.
While NRT tries to recruit bus drivers, some of the students who are lucky to get a seat on the bus are arriving at their schools late.
“Yes, some of our buses are still arriving late to school,” said Lynch to SOURCE. “There are many factors that can contribute to this including new drivers, new students taking the bus, traffic patterns, etc and it usually takes a month or two for routes to iron out, become consistent and on time. I can assure you we are working diligently to get our students to and from school on time and in a safe manner.”
Framingham Public Schools runs three bus routes a day.
The first run is for Framingham High School, and its more than 2,400 students. After completing the high school run, bus drivers then pick up and deliver students to the three middle schools plus McCarthy Elementary School. When the second run is complete, the bus drivers then begin their third run for the 8 remaining elementary schools.
In the afternoon, the three morning runs are repeated and then there is the matter of athletic transportations for Framingham High.
Since the start of the fall sports season, some games and athletics contests have been postponed due to a lack of buses. Other contest have had times changed due to late buses. At times, coaches and the athletic director have had to use the mini buses to transport teams to their games and matches, themselves. Other times, students and parents have been asked to transport student-athletes to away games. And at times, the athletic director has hired private coach-style buses to get teams to away games.
“Our athletic department works tirelessly day in and day out with our transportation department to secure transportation for our student athletes through our bus company,” said Lynch to SOURCE.
“When we are unable to secure transportation, we have had to partner with other outside vendors to cover the trips including coach bus vendors. The majority of the vendors we speak to can not help us as they are short drivers themselves. I work closely with the athletic department to track the costs of transporting with outside vendors,” said Lynch.
Though last week, $5,561 has been spent on outside bus vendors, said Lynch.
“The bus company, per our contract, then credits our invoices for the difference between the cost of the actual trip versus what the cost would be if our bus company provided transportation,” said Lynch. “While we seek help from other transportation vendors, we also cover trips with our three 15-passenger buses. Our athletic director, our assistant athletic director and our coaches have been driving to transport to and from games.”