KENNEBUNK, Maine — Cindy Messier held up two thick catalogs for all to see – including the man sitting right next to her, U.S. Education Secretary Dr. Miguel Cardona.
“This is pretty intimidating,” Messier said, as the catalogs drooped in an arc from her grip.
Messier is a school bus driver for RSU 21. She also trains the bus drivers. She was holding up the catalogs that are issued for all who are training individuals seeking their commercial driver’s licenses – not just bus drivers, but everyone else, too.
“We may need a new catalog for people who just want to be bus drivers,” she told Cardona.
Messier was speaking to a point made by Renda Turner, who has been driving students to school in RSU 21 for 23 years and loves her job. Turner had raised the issue of how much time it takes for bus drivers to get their licenses.
And with that and a few other remarks by local bus drivers, Cardona got what he was looking for. He had traveled from D.C. to Kennebunk on Monday, April 11, to meet with RSU 21 bus drivers and to thank them for their hard work, particularly during these last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Cardona also wanted the local bus drivers to tell him about the obstacles they are facing and hope to have removed.
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“It shouldn’t take a pandemic to appreciate our bus drivers,” Cardona said during an outdoor forum at the RSU 21 Transportation Department on York Street. “We couldn’t do what we’re doing in our country without you.”
Flanked by a fleet of school buses and joined by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Cardona listened as a panel of local bus drivers shared what they enjoyed best about their jobs and offered feedback about some of the issues the nation’s top education official could help them address back in Washington.
Given the pandemic, the discussion was one that would have been hard to imagine more than two years ago, before COVID-19 swept the world and changed the nature of a bus driver’s job.
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During the shutdowns prompted by the crisis, bus drivers found themselves delivering meals to students in their neighborhoods, as they stayed home and sheltered in place. As the pandemic persisted, bus drivers also found themselves taking temperatures, assigning seating and making sure all children’s faces were covered with masks. As well, they were the first ones each day to get a sense of how students were weathering the crisis before they faced their teachers and classmates.
As Pingree said, “Everyone has had to navigate a whole new system.”
But for all the challenges, bus drivers like Dennis Duprey, the vice president of the local Transportation Employees Association, made it clear that a lot of them love their jobs. Duprey spoke of young students who board his bus and share stories of losing teeth and getting new boots.
“I love it,” Duprey said. “It’s rewarding, it’s fulfilling, it’s fun.”
Duprey said he appreciated the recognition Cardona was providing with his visit.
“We feel sometimes that we’re not recognized,” he said. “It’s an important job.”
Duprey also thanked the federal government for its support – namely, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds that have come to RSU 21 to help the district through the pandemic.
Federal funds put to good use
RSU 21 Superintendent Terri Cooper applied for and received the emergency monies through the ARP’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds.
“We were able to purchase new school buses using the federal aid, which gave us more flexibility to meet the unique transportation challenges during the pandemic, without having to use any local taxpayer monies,” Cooper said in a news release ahead of Cardona’s visit.
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In February, Cooper also applied for and received federal funds to pay a $500 bonus to all full-time RSU 21 staff, including the bus drivers who gathered on Monday.
“We were pleased to be able to recognize the extraordinary contributions of our teachers, educational technicians, maintenance, transportation, nutrition, and administrative staff with premium pay for their service throughout the pandemic,” Cooper added. “Like all of our dedicated staff, we are proud of our bus drivers, mechanics, and bus aides who have helped keep students safe in school and on the bus throughout the pandemic.”
RSU 21’s transportation department is fully staffed with 33 bus drivers, 18 aides and two mechanics and has a fleet of 53 buses.
Cardona is a former elementary school teacher and principal as well as the former education commissioner in Connecticut. In 2021, President Joe Biden tapped him to join his Cabinet as the nation’s twelfth Secretary of Education.
Before leaving to visit York County Community College in Wells, Cardona told reporters he had chosen to visit RSU 21 because its transportation department sets an example that could be followed elsewhere as other districts face shortages of bus drivers and other issues.
“This is an example of what I want to see across the country,” he said.