US education secretary visits Maine to talk challenges

Dorothy S. Bass

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Miguel Cardona listened to input from leaders of RSU 21 before touring York County Community College.

KENNEBUNK, Maine — Cindy Messier carries a lot of responsibility at Regional School Unit 21 in Kennebunk.

She’s the bus driving instructor for the district, which includes schools in Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, and Arundel. She drives her own regular bus routes, brings kids to afterschool sports practices, and often covers shifts for other drivers.

“If I’m driving, that means a mechanic doesn’t need to come drive,” she smiled while standing next to one of the district’s big yellow machines.

Messier came to work Monday when her bosses would have undoubtedly understood if she had called out.

“I’m actually having a granddaughter right this minute,” she laughed.

She was no use to her daughter, she said, until the baby came. So, she used her time to bend the ear of the most powerful man in American education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited the Kennebunk bus depot Monday, a guest of Superintendent Terri Cooper and Rep. Chellie Pingree. During a so-called roundtable discussion outside in chairs, Cardona lauded the decision of Maine lawmakers and several school districts to allocate funds from the American Rescue Plan to offer sign-on bonuses to bus drivers.

RSU 21 is one of the districts offering the bonuses, and Messier told Cardona it has helped attract and retain drivers to a point where they aren’t facing any gaps during shifts.

But not all district’s have the fortune of a full staff. 

Monday morning, Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais Tweeted a message that some of the city’s kids would not have a bus ride to school. “Good morning. Bus 34 will not run today due to the continued driver shortage,” he wrote. “Thank you for your understanding. Have a great day.”

In a phone conversation Monday, Langlais told NEWS CENTER Maine there are more days in Lewiston with a missing route than without one.

“Every day is like a snow day,” he said, explaining how he and district leadership wake up around 5 a.m. each day to assess which buses will have a driver that day. 

To help, he said, the driver certification process should be expedited. 

According to him, if a person comes in willing to drive for the district, it could take six weeks before they’re driving a bus with students in it. Langlais said he doesn’t want to sacrifice safety, but a faster certification process is possible.

Back in Kennebunk, Messier did have ideas for things she’d like to improve about the driver hiring process. 

Messier held up an instructional manual she said she had been required to use, until this winter, to teach new recruits. It appeared to be little more than 1 inch thick. She then picked up two large binders and showed them to Cardona and those gathered in the circle. Those binders, she said, were now the required learning material. They included, among other items, towing instructions for tractor trailers. 

Messier said the textbooks were used for broad commercial drivers licenses and, like Langlais, suggested a bus-specific curriculum would help streamline the process and get new drivers on the road faster.

“What I took today is, ‘Why don’t we make the process simpler?'” Cardona posed after the meeting. “Why don’t we tap on the shoulders of retired teachers, retired principals that are looking to get back in and support their community? I think with American Rescue Plan Funds we can recruit folks, pay them bonuses.”

Daniel Chuhta, Maine deputy commissioner of education, attended the Monday event. He said the state is still seeing some bumps as the pandemic smooths out.

“We know there are still school units that are facing those challenges,” he said. “Ongoing recruitment and support is still happening across the state. So, there are those unfortunate situation where there are some cancellations, but I think we’ll see fewer of those as we proceed.”

Messier said she believed Cardona would sincerely consider her input when he returned to Washington. 

Later, once the crowd left, Messier looked at her phone and smiled wide.

“I have a baby!” she exclaimed. She hurriedly walked over and showed us the first photo of her new grandchild.

That night, the woman who knows many roles would add a new one:

“I’m nona,” she stated. Not “grandma” or “grammie.”

Simply, nona. It was now the title that mattered the most.

More NEWS CENTER Maine stories

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