Headaches related to school bus service in the Scappoose School District seem to be easing, thanks to news that the district has contracted with First Student as an additional transportation provider.
The district still uses Durham School Services to provide bus transportation, but for several months, the district has experienced a shortage of bus drivers, leading to bus blackout issues in Scappoose.
The district posted a notice on Facebook Feb. 16, saying First Student, a company that provides bus service nationally, notified them they had four drivers complete training who are credentialed for Oregon. Scappoose entered into an agreement with the second company to provide supplemental service, bridging the gap in Durham's driver availability.
The First Student drivers began serving Scappoose on Thursday, Feb. 17.
Mitch Neilson, business manager for the school district, described the dilemma his district faced when schools finally opened last September.
"When we were able to return back to school full-time, we had a group of drivers that chose to retire and not come back," Neilson said. "In that process of recruiting, at last check of all the different applicants that have come in, only one has actually either passed background checks, drug screenings, and/or gone on to complete training through Durham."
Neilson continued, "We chose to give families as much notice as possible that there is going to be a disruption while we continued to recruit potential drivers and look for other options that were available."
Then came news that First Student drivers, who had completed their training, were available to help transport students.
"The first routes ran on Thursday, Feb. 17, to fill the routes that had been blacked out," Neilson said, noting it was like "the first day of school."
He said the district was able to work through some "hiccups" and everything, from what he heard, went well.
From what Neilson can gather, he said, the new service appears to be working for students in the district.
"It's doing what we needed to do," he said. "Overall, the feedback has been positive."
The plan is for First Student to continue service in Scappoose through the rest of the 2021-22 school year, but Neilson is not certain about the 2022-23 school year.
"That is a bridge we would have to cross when we get to that point," Neilson said. "Our contract is with Durham, so if they are able to fulfill and meet the needs, then we would continue that contract. If they can't, we do the exact same thing we did, which was try and find other options as quickly as we can."
First Student is currently providing five buses.
While the First Student agreement helps Scappoose schools a considerable amount, Neilson noted there is still not enough coverage for athletics.
Asked if First Student bus service will add to district transportation costs, Neilson said, "We will not have costs above what was budgeted for transportation."
District officials have yet to release the exact cost to the district of the mid-year agreement with First Student.
Neilson noted that the school bus driver shortage is not simply a local issue.
"Other districts have it better or worse than us," he said. "Other districts have other options for flexibility."
While the neighboring St. Helens School District also contracts with Durham, district officials there have reported few to no disruptions in service.
Neilson said it wasn't easy for the Scappoose School District to cut service on particular routes due to the driver shortage.
"It's a decision that we didn't want to have to make in the first place," Neilson said. "These were the circumstances we were dealt. Again, we made the choice to provide families as much notice as possible when there's going to be a disruption."
Neilson added, "At this point … it's doing what we anticipated doing, and barring no other issues, we should be good through the end of the year."
First Student has an office in Scappoose and, according to Neilson, also provides bus service for Sauvie Island Academy, a public charter school affiliated with the Scappoose School District.
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