Pownal Select Board approves bus contract with elementary district

The Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union canceled school for Tuesday because of a lack of school bus drivers. 

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BENNINGTON — The unplanned fall vacation for students in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is apparently over: School buses were set to return to the region’s roads on Wednesday morning.

Tuesday, the district’s children got a one-day reprieve from class when Superintendent James Culkeen’s office, after consulting with bus provider Dufour Transportation, announced school was canceled due to a lack of bus drivers.

As was the case when it called school Monday night, the supervisory union broke the news on its Facebook page.

“Because of illness and bereavement, Dufour Transportation was unable to staff all buses [Tuesday]. Therefore, Dufour manager Mike Gardner and Superintendent James Culkeen made the decision to cancel school last evening so that students and families could have as much time to prepare as possible” the SVSU said.

“We did not want to make this decision in the morning. We wanted families to have as much time as possible to plan for child care. Again, school will be open tomorrow with all buses running on schedule.”

Messages left Tuesday afternoon with Dufour’s offices and with SVSU spokesperson Katie West were not returned by press time.

This is not the first time a busing issue has closed schools in the region.

Dover School Principal Matt Martyn said his elementary school was unable to run its bus service on the first three days of the school year after two regular drivers had conflicts — one medical, one personal.

“We normally have two back-up drivers in addition to our two regular drivers, but neither of them were available either,” he said. “It is my understanding that they both have officially retired from driving. We checked with one of the local bus companies to see if they had any spare drivers but they did not.”

Martyn called September’s interruption of service “extremely rare,” as the school has two drivers on staff.

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“[B]ut in this case, “there was no other option,” he said.

Windham Central Superintendent Bill Anton said Dover School was able to alert parents to the issue in advance and the disruption was short lived. The supervisory union hasn’t had any other major challenges with busing this year.

Windham Southeast Supervisory Union based in Brattleboro also hasn’t reported any major issues with busing. But Superintendent Mark Speno said he believes “we could use more staff.”

Jeffrey Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said Bennington’s busing issue is part of a basic reality, adding, “The issue with staffing is across the entire spectrum.”

He said districts across the state have been scrambling to find custodians, teachers, substitutes, nurses and other critical school positions.

“The staffing shortage that is plaguing Vermont in general, both in the public and the private sector, is also affecting schools,” Francis said. “If it’s school buses, you can’t operate because they don’t have a deep bench of bus drivers, let alone relief of substitute bus drivers.”

He said last year, with the “assault of the pandemic,” schools moved online to complete their academic year. This year, he noted, the challenges are in some ways greater because the students are back in school – where they should be, he stressed – but various districts are experiencing different problems like staffing shortages at different times and unexpectedly. Add to that, schools are struggling with testing and contact tracing protocols.

The Vermont Agency of Education issued a statement, saying, “We are aware of staffing challenges across Vermont, with many districts struggling with hiring bus drivers. This is not a unique, nor new problem. Some districts have struggled with this annually for several years, and the education system is experiencing staff shortages in other areas as well.”

— Chris Mays and Susan Allen contributed to this story.

Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@benningtonbanner.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.


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