Officials irate after Durham leaves preschoolers at Adams Farm

Officials irate after Durham leaves preschoolers at Adams Farm

CUMBERLAND – The latest chapter in the never-ending saga over whether Durham School Services will ever be able to properly deliver Cumberland students to school and home again left school officials shaking their heads.

School Committee members expressed consternation last Thursday, Sept. 26, after Supt. Bob Mitchell shared that preschool students who were dropped off for a visit to Adams Farm earlier that day, and were supposed to be picked up at a specific time, were left at the farm for significantly longer than they were supposed to be.

Member Ray Salvatore said he’s not one to nitpick over individual issues, but “this one’s really concerning.”

Francisco Monteiro, representing Durham, explained that the students were picked up late because of staff call-outs. Both morning pre-K and afternoon pre-K went on the same trip, he said, and when pickup of the first group of students and teachers was late by 20 minutes, it delayed pickup of the second group.

Last Thursday was not a good day, said Mitchell. He also received an email a day earlier from a parent whose children were supposed to be picked up at 7:28 a.m. to be brought to North Cumberland Middle School, but still hadn’t been picked up as of 7:55 a.m.

As Durham representatives again blamed ongoing issues with staffing shortages and other issues, school board members tore into them, saying they’re tired of the same excuses being offered year after year.

Certainly there are some staffing issues and other matters of concern, said Mitchell, but he would also argue “that organizationally there are some issues as well.”

The committee ended up approving school bus routes for the year, saying the routes won’t be changing despite issues with timing and staffing.

Salvatore asked for a sort of “state of the union” on the health of Durham, but expressed frustration as Monteiro and Armando Ferreira focused mostly on the driver shortage that’s been experienced throughout the state. When a couple of drivers called out sick last Thursday, it created a problem for the whole day, they said. Monteiro also cited issues with traffic in town from the roundabout project on Diamond Hill Road.

Monteiro said the company is doing everything possible to attract qualified drivers, and currently has eight of them in training. He said administrative staff is filling in the gaps by driving buses when drivers call out, but school board member Steve Hess noted that such a move creates problems on two fronts, as staff is not in their seats to answer parent calls.

Hess, serving his last meeting in the district, said this is the second straight year where “lackluster service” is being blamed on a driver shortage, and that’s not the town’s problem. The town hires Durham because the company is supposed to have the expertise to address problems to get students to and from school safely, he said. When that doesn’t happen, it shortchanges students’ education.

“It’s completely unacceptable that year after year, Durham has excuses, but Durham does not have solutions,” he said.

Durham needs to do what it takes, whether that means increasing sign-on bonuses or hiring more people, to do the job the right way, Hess said. Why is it that issues can be worked out by October or November, but the company can’t seem to figure them out prior to the start of school?

“I can’t fathom how a business can run where you consistently do not provide the service you’re contracted to provide,” he said, and the company continues to deliver excuses and promises to do better. “Just get it done.”

Chairman Paul DiModica, the only no vote on approving the bus routes, said he doesn’t know how company representatives can keep a straight face while saying that they’re doing the job. He said he’s been hearing about these issues for eight years now, which is why he’s directed Mitchell to look at a new busing partnership for when the contract with Durham is up.

“You’re not doing the job, and you’re never going to do the job, I think, in Cumberland,” he said.

Poor service can only hurt the company here and elsewhere, he said. The company was not telling the truth when it said the buses were ready to go in August, he said.

DiModica told the two men that if complaints continue he wants to bring someone in from corporate headquarters to have a frank discussion about the problems.

Also an issue of late has been that Durham hasn’t had required monitors on every bus, a matter that caused residents to complain last week. Issues with staffing there, said resident Tom Letourneau, appear to be centered on the fact that the pay is barely above $11 per hour. DiModica, in an email to Letourneau, said that the split shifts before and after school are not attractive and he plans to move that the hourly wage be raised to $14 or $15.