U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona met with RSU 21 bus drivers today to listen to their concerns and suggestions about our pandemic and recovery issues facing public school transportation. Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree joined Cardona in meeting with leaders of the RSU 21 Transportation Employee Association.
Superintendent Dr. Terri Cooper welcomed Cardona and Pingree to RSU 21, who then hosted a listening session roundtable with bus drivers and a senior mechanic. “I am here today to listen,” Cardona said.
“It’s such an important job,” said Dennis Duprey, a RSU 21 bus driver told Cardona, “I absolutely love it, it's rewarding and fulfilling.” Cardona thanked Duprey for his service, saying that bus drivers are “the first person students see each morning.” Cardona shared that when he was a school principal his uncle served as a bus driver in his district, and he learned a lot about his students from the bus drivers.
Cardona asked for recommendations he could take back to Washington. Cindy Messier, RSU 21 bus driver responsible for driver training programs, shared an example where recent federal Commercial Driver License (CDL) training books have more than doubled in length and it doesn’t help in recruiting or retention. “The majority doesn’t pertain toward the requirements of a school bus driver,” Messier said, showing Cardona and Pingree the old manual and the new manuals. “I have successfully trained 17 people in the transportation department using the prior manuals, and they worked fine,” Messier said.
Later, Cardona told reporters that he would take Messier’s recommendation back to his team to Washington to address how his department can improve the process to make it easier for districts like RSU 21 to hire, train, and retain bus drivers. Frank West, Senior Mechanic at the Transportation department told Cardona about how Dr. Cooper used the American Relief Plan federal funds to install new mobile lifts. “It’s nice when administration supports you,” Cardona told West.
Scott Pipher, RSU 21 Transportation Employees Association (TEA) President and bus driver, said “I was glad Secretary Cardona came and listened to us; he was really easy to talk to and we felt heard.” Pipher also introduced Renda Turner to Cardona, as RSU 21’s longest service bus driver.
Cardona told reporters that he heard from the RSU 21 bus drivers that “they feel appreciated in this community and that there is a culture of support for bus drivers.”
“We can’t have schools open if our bus drivers aren’t cared for,” Cardona said. “American Rescue Plan funds have allowed for employee bonuses, new buses, and better training. It’s important that we not just thank our bus drivers, but we support them,” he said.
Pingree agreed, thanking the Secretary of Education for choosing to meet with bus drivers on his first visit to Maine. “We know the important role bus drivers play,” said Pingree. “I’m a parent and a grandparent and when I get home to my small town I will be sure to thank my bus drivers.”
“I’m thankful to our bus drivers, and to all our educators who have bent over backwards for our students,” Cardona shared. “Our students have gone through enough, and it’s time to not only get them to school safely on a bus but to improve education outcomes for all students.”
The RSU 21 welcome delegation included several teachers too. “I was inspired as a lifelong learner to hear Secretary Cardona, a former elementary school teacher like me, speak to us here today at RSU 21,” said Amy Bayah from Kennebunk Elementary School. “It was an honor”. Joining Bayah was James Francois from Middle School of the Kennebunks and Andrew Young from Kennebunk High School.
Kennebunk High School junior Annie Murer, who is a student representative on the RSU 21 school board, joined the delegation and presented Congresswoman Pingree with a token of appreciation for her support of Maine school districts and her visit to RSU 21. “It was really incredible today to see people with such important roles in our country connecting with our RSU 21 community and how we got a chance to show our district to the nation,” said Murer.
Art LeBlanc, RSU 21 Board Chair, noted, "It was great to see the rapport between Secretary Cardona. Dr. Cooper and the transportation team. RSU 21 bus drivers truly love their students and what they do and I'm thankful they were able to share that with Secretary Cardona."
“We were honored that Secretary Cardona chose RSU 21 to visit today, and listen to our amazing transportation team,” said Cooper. “I am proud of their work, and proud of the work of all of our dedicated staff here at RSU 21.”