FRAMINGHAM - The most recent meeting of the Framingham School Committee was a contentious one, as elected officials called for action from their contracted bus operator amid an ongoing driver shortage that has resulted in hundreds of local students without an assigned bus route.
Framingham has partnered with NRT Bus, Inc. to deliver kids to and from classes, but the new school year began with only 57 bus drivers ready to serve the city—that’s 20 short of what the contract with NRT calls for.
The city’s policy shows that students in kindergarten through Grade 6 that live two miles or less from their school are deemed ineligible for guaranteed transportation; the same goes for any student in Grades 7 through 12.
As of the September 6 meeting, Executive Director of Finance and Operations for Framingham Public Schools Lincoln Lynch explained that 4,880 students have been accommodated on buses to start the school year. That has left 423 students unassigned. Lynch noted that any student deemed eligible for bus transport and whose family submitted a request prior to the mid-July deadline has been taken care of, though the city is trying to get rider numbers back up to the roughly 6,000 passengers accommodated for in a normal year.
“I think the worst part of the job here is talking to families that don’t have any way to get to school, especially if they’re ineligible," Lynch said during the meeting.
“It’s a tough thing to do: to talk to families and let them know that, unfortunately at this time, we’re not able to accommodate their transportation request.”
Multiple members of the school committee, including David Gordon of District 2, expressed their dismay towards the staffing troubles being felt by NRT, who had representatives in attendance virtually to present their plan to increase bus driver recruitment.
“My point—putting it bluntly—is that you’re going to show your slides, but they serve no relevance, because all you’re going to talk about is efforts, and the efforts have failed,” Gordon said, after detailing what he saw as insufficient NRT driver numbers in Framingham along with Marlborough and Westborough.
“You don’t have a child in this district that has to walk,” Gordon remarked soon after.
NRT’s Vice President of Operations Mike Frambach did tell the committee that a plan for local recruitment has been made, as a group of their representatives later outlined recent developments.
Frambach explained that six drivers were being trained in their system specifically for Framingham routes at the time of the meeting. Director of Talent Acquisition for the company Dwain Ehlinger highlighted the increase in competition within the bus driver industry to hire and retain employees as well as NRT’s standards for background checks playing a factor in the current situation. Ehlinger added that NRT has been investing in technology, social media outreach, and job board postings on websites like Indeed to boost recruitment.
“We take these openings very, very seriously,” Frambach told the committee.
“We’re not sitting on our hands idly, just waiting for people to find us and walk in the front door. We have been taking a multi-faceted approach to finding new drivers…There is a national shortage, I’ll be the first to admit that. This is a national crisis facing our industry.”
Still, the committee was left searching for answers. District 4 Member Adam Freudberg was unsure if NRT’s plan would cut it, pointing out that NRT was 10 drivers short of the contracted driver number to start the 2021-22 school year and 17 drivers short to begin the 2022-23 year.
“I’ve been on the School Committee far too long,” Freudberg explained to NRT’s representatives (he was first elected to the post in 2017).
“The exact minutes and transcript of this discussion, you could probably mirror and look at 2021 and 2022, and here we are now on the same type of chronic challenges. I’m done talking about the same thing over and over again, with all due respect to everyone involved…I’m not targeting this towards anyone specifically, because this isn’t personal except for the kids that are denied and the kids that are late. It’s all about the kids.”
Freudberg suggested that NRT work with MassHire to boost recruitment, while also offering multi-year contracts to drivers and utilizing the ability to sub-contract work out to other agencies. The latter option is a part of the mutual contract and can be exercised with the city’s permission. Ehlinger said that the company is already partnered with MassHire, and mentioned that the other choices could be explored further.
Other methods, like a carpool vendor, have been investigated by Framingham school officials. Lynch said that progress has been made on that front and that the vendor could wind up costing around $12,000 for the district to use.
“It’s not the solution,” Lynch said, “but it’s another option for families to be able to go a platform, connect with other families potentially in their neighborhood, and either be able to carpool or maybe get a group together to walk to school.”
District 3 School Committee Member Jennifer Moshe suggested billing that carpool vendor expense back to NRT. Lynch said that measure has yet to be proposed formally, though it could be looked into.
Lynch also pointed out that students eligible for rides through the federal McKinney-Vento Act of 1987—which guarantees transportation to and from school for children who are homeless—is funded through a different pool of money, taking that out of the running as a potential solution.
Both Framingham and NRT are looking to set up job fairs that could help ease the bus driver burden. But Freudberg said that the clock is ticking.
“If we didn’t have this driver shortage, (NRT) would never have to come to these meetings, except for a once-a-year annual report,” Freudberg continued.
“This is the only reason—the driver shortage—why we have this crisis. That magic number of 77 (drivers) is not going to be hit unless NRT steps up this month. I need change this month. We have an independent auditor’s report coming in October—or maybe even sooner—and when that comes, we as a committee need to decide the type of helpless feeling that we’re OK having anymore if we’re going to let that go on.”
The next meeting of the Framingham School Committee is Wednesday, September 20.
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