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In Northwood, School Year Starts With Transportation Crisis

Jason Moon for NHPR

School districts across New Hampshire have been grappling with a shortage of school bus drivers.

Nowhere has that situation become more dire than in Northwood, where officials have been forced to delay the start of the school year and to push back the start of the school day by two hours.

That’s causing big problems for parents.

On the Friday before the first day of school, parents gathered at the Northwood Community Center. They were jotting down their phone numbers or their children’s names on two different colors of poster boards.

“The orange ones are for those people needing either before-school care or a car pool and the blue ones are for those who have space in their already existing car pool or are willing to take kids in the morning.”

Cheryl Deane set up this event. She says it’s an extension of a much larger conversation happening in Facebook groups online – parents trying to figure out how to deal with a school day that doesn’t start until 10am, after many of them are already at work.

Kendra Hamel, another parent, is here to offer to watch kids in the morning. But she says it’s not just the morning routine that’s being disrupted.

“My friend’s mom, she ran the afterschool program for Northwood and now she’s going to be out of a job because there’s no afterschool care, because the school’s going to go to 4:30 now.”

This gathering is just the one of the ways parents in Northwood are trying to deal with a situation that began in April. That’s when the bus company that had driven Northwood students to school for more than a decade notified the school district that they were going out of business.

“So we immediately put it out to bid. We contacted all of the transportation companies throughout the state of New Hampshire and beyond and we had no proposals sent back in.”

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

That’s Superintendent Robert Godomski. He says they contacted around a dozen different bus companies – and they all told him the same thing: they didn’t have enough drivers.

The district had been trying to keep on the old drivers under a new company, but about a week ago those negotiations fell through.

Godomski says as the situation grew more desperate, ideas being floated have ranged from calling in the National Guard to hiring Uber drivers.

But state statutes require elementary schools offer transportation by licensed school bus drivers.

Eventually Dail Transportation, based in nearby Epsom, agreed to have drivers come over to Northwood after they finish their normal routes in other towns. So, the Northwood School Board voted to change the school’s start time to 10am until they can find new drivers for Northwood.

“So if anybody is interested in driving a bus, I would appreciate it if they would call me here at the SAU office. Our number is 942-1290. And I will take them through everything they need to become certified as a bus driver.”

Godomski says a few people in town have come forward. But training them will take 6 to 8 weeks. And they still need more drivers.

In an effort to attract some, the school board recently increased the sign-on bonus for bus drivers from $3000 to $4500.

Meanwhile the state Department of Education has been getting involved. While there’s not much the state can do directly, Commissioner Frank Edelblut says this is a situation that calls for all hands on deck.

“I have been in regular contact with Superintendent Godomski over there, I have been calling bus companies myself, trying to surface bus drivers for us.”

Edelblut says they’ve also been working on ways to expedite the training process for new drivers at the state level.

On Tuesday, Edelblut will attend a public forum hosted by the Northwood School Board. There, parents and board members will continue to look for solutions to the immediate impacts of the shortage.

Back at the Northwood Community Center, Kendra Hamel says she’s curious to see how her son, who’s going into the first grade, will handle all this.

“I don’t think he really understands. All he really knows is that he’s going to first grade and he’s excited about that.”

Hopefully, she says, he won’t even notice.

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