Temp driver puts Bus 4 troubles under control for now Communications from school remain an issue

By Cynthia Prairie
©2018 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Parents in Andover and the western part of Chester have been frustrated by spotty school bus service – including no buses, late buses and inconsistent communications from the school. But just weeks before the end of the school year on June 19, a temporary solution has given them some relief. The question is what will happen in the fall.

Families wait on North Hill Road for the school bus to CAES and GMUSH. All photos by Shawn Cunningham.

After months of not being able to provide a driver reliably for the Andover route — known as Bus 4, Green Mountain Union High School, which manages the bus service for the middle-high school and Chester-Andover Elementary, hired a temporary driver to finish out the school year, transportation director Todd Parah told the Telegraph early last week.

In late May, a number of parents outlined their complaints in a letter to the editor. In addition to late or non-existent buses, their complaints included a insufficient or inconsistent notice when a bus would not be available and little or no response to question or suggestions. Parents also felt that the school’s efforts to recruit drivers could be more robust.

Parah said that finding enough qualified bus drivers to fill the need has been difficult. But he hopes that by the beginning of school in August he will at least four permanent drivers and, in the best case, six, which would restore all the bus routes.

Andover and Chester families along the Bus 4 Route have said that bus service has been problematic since the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, but at its worst in recent months. The route begins with a pickup at 6:25 a.m. at Magic Mountain, then to North Hill  at Andover Road, through Andover to Potash Brook Road in Chester before heading down Route 11 toward the high school and CAES, at 7:40 a.m.

The problem of spotty bus service isn’t just a matter of inconvenience for many rural families, it can also have a financial impact.

Potash Brook Road resident Leanna Snyder, who was in the process of moving her job from Chester Family Medicine to the Ludlow clinic, could envision her work hours being drastically cut: 3.5 to 4 hours a day to accommodate the lack of bus service so that she could pick up her elementary school child and take care of him at home.  “Fortunately, I’m in a position that will allow me to work when I’m available. However,” she added, “that also means a cut in income while paying the same for childcare of my youngest.”

North Hill Road resident Wes Williams, who works in his family business and is expected at work at 7 a.m., said the bus’s scheduled stop for his kids is 6:45 a.m. “but 6:52 is normal.” And, he added, “There were multiple situations where we would wait and wait for the bus and it wouldn’t show up.”  At times, he said, he depends on his mother for help, “but she loses work time as well. So one of us is losing work time.”

For Kirk Sparkman, who lives off Potash Brook Road with his teenage children,  the lack of bus service is a safety issue. “I work nights, as a machinist in Springfield. I get home after midnight and go to bed around 3 a.m. Then I have to get up at 7 a.m. to take my kids to school. … It’s dangerous for me to be constantly doing this … going to bed late, getting up early and driving. … I need them to have a bus. It is killing me. It’s been killing me for at least a year.”

Shortly after 7 a.m. the bus arrives and students board.

Andover resident Savannah Gramling’s household consists not only of her three children, but a niece and sister-in-law. All the kids go to Chester-Andover.

“I am one of the first stops in the morning and one of the last stops in the afternoon,” more than an hour each way, she says. “I have fought since my daughter was in kindergarten to get a route reversal to either have early pickup and early drop off,” Gramling said, to try to make it more fair.  Instead, she now picks up the kids at the Andover Church, which shaves off more than 15 minutes of travel time.

Parah said, “We sympathize with those parents. We are trying as hard has we can … We need bus drivers like everyone else in this country. This is a nationwide problem.”

He added that being a school bus driver requires a lot of commitment: “To qualify as a driver, a candidate must have a Commercial Drivers License, must go through a background check and a fingerprint check, have eight hours in a safety course, pass a driving test, a drug test and a vehicle inspection test.”

To lure candidates, he added, “We’re paying $22 an hour, with a $1,000 signing bonus given out in increments.”

That Monday in early May

But it’s not just the bus service that has been spotty. Parents say  inconsistent communication from the school system to the parents about the problematic bus service throws everything into disarray, leaving no time for planning and a lot of rushing around.

‘This route is getting the short end of stick and the communication is a real problem. We either get a robocall or an email and text messages or nothing. But it’s not consistent. I never know what to expect. But this week they seemed to have settled on emails.’

Parent Leanna Snyder

Everyone remembers that Monday in early May.  The bus, parents say, never showed up, because as they learned later, the driver was a no-show. Says Williams, “At about 7:15, someone up the road farther came by and asked about the bus. We went back home to find out if there were any messages and there were not any.”  Williams finally got a message, he said, as a text message, not the usual robocall. “And I got that message as I was driving up to the school at around 7:30.”

By that time, Gramling had called the high school. “I … was relayed about the situation that the bus driver didn’t show. Next day, same wait. Todd Parah called and was surprised we were not notified. … he was very sympathetic.”

However some elementary school parents did get the message that there would be no Tuesday bus, Gramling said: Kids who were riding that Monday afternoon bus were notified by the elementary school.  But that didn’t help the parents who had decided to pick up their children on that Monday afternoon.

Last week, Snyder said, “This route is getting the short end of stick and the communication is a real problem. We either get a robocall or an email and text messages or nothing. But it’s not consistent. I never know what to expect. But this week they seemed to have settled on emails.”

Gramling agreed: “Now we don’t get robocalls and we seem to be on emails only.”

Said Williams, “My biggest problem is the communications. The elementary school robocalls – I haven’t been receiving any updates since the last canceled snow day.”

Detailed voicemails and messages left last week and this for GM Principal Tom Ferenc and Associate Principal Mike Ripley, who manages communications with the parents, were not returned.

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor for 30 years, having worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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