By Doug Ireland
---- — Salem High School will become the latest Southern New Hampshire school to discontinue its driver’s education program.
A loss of state funding, key personnel and the increased hassle of operating the program made it expendable, school Superintendent Michael Delahanty said Thursday. The program ends in March.
Few Granite State school districts continue to offer their own programs, instead bringing in private driving schools to provide the service at schools.
Soon, the Timberlane Regional School District will be the only local district to operate its own program.
“We always had a very good program and we were able to maintain it,” Delahanty said. “Unfortunately, it’s reached a point where we can no longer offer the program.”
After a longtime director stepped down several years ago and other driving instructors — all classroom teachers — had difficulty juggling responsibilities and the required paperwork, the program became difficult to operate, Delahanty said.
The number of instructors has since dwindled from five and two, and the two remaining instructors told the district they did not plan to teach driver’s education next year, he said.
Another key reason for ending the program is the loss of a $120-per-student subsidy from the state Department of Education, Delahanty said.
The state department stopped overseeing driver’s education in 2007 after the Legislature passed a bill that shifted full control to the Department of Safety, he said.
“That’s one of the reasons we stopped requiring it,” said Judith Fillion of the Department of Education. “It’s more expensive for parents now than it used to be.”
The state used to fund driver’s education through vanity license plate sales, she said. The number of district-operated programs was not available.
Driver’s education is required for anyone under 18. Learners permits are not necessary. New drivers must be at least 15 and half years old to get their license.
Many districts across the state brought in private driving schools because it was easier and more cost-effective than operating their own programs.
The Salem program costs $87,000 a year to run, and 60 to 70 students take driver’s education at a time, Delahanty said. Students pay $480 to take it through the school. Area driving schools charge roughly $600 per student.
Delahanty said he’s disappointed the district will have to rely on a private driving school to provide the training, but it’s a trend that’s been happening in Southern New Hampshire for years.
Timberlane is the only other local district to still provide its own program. Repeated attempts to reach Timberlane officials last week were unsuccessful.
Other Southern New Hampshire school districts use private driving schools.The only exception is Pinkerton Academy in Derry, which stopped offering driver’s education at all after dropping its program two years ago.
The district now only offers students a list of state-approved schools, but young drivers and their families must find their own instructors.
Jack Grube, Pinkerton’s career and technical education director, said the loss of state funding, program scheduling difficulties and decreased support from auto dealerships prompted the school to discontinue driver’s education.
“It became more and more difficult for us to get cars and keep cars,” he said.
Grube said a deal with Allen Motors, which closed during the recession, allowed the school to operate its program at a minimal cost.
When many districts across the state started discontinuing their programs six years ago, the number of private driving schools skyrocketed, Grube said. An increase in the driving time requirement — from eight hours of practice driving with an instructor to 10 hours — also spurred the spike in numbers, he said.
“That created an enormous backlog (for Pinkerton driving instructors) and created a whole new market of schools,” Grube said.
The state Department of Safety also requires students to have 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of driving observation. They also must log 40 hours of additional driving time with an adult, including 10 hours at night.
Only one-third of Pinkerton’s driver’s education students were participating in the school’s program when it was discontinued, he said. It cost $625 for students who registered early and $650 for those who did not.
Grube said Salem, Timberlane and Goffstown are among a “handful” of districts in the state that still offer programs.
Pelham dropped its program three years ago now and brought in Granite State Driving School, which charges $575 per student. Windham High School, which never had its own program, also relies on Granite State Driving School. The rates vary by town.
Windham High School teacher Christine Simmons, a former Pinkerton and Granite State Driving School instructor, has decided to open her own business.
“There is a huge demand for driver’s ed instructors,” she said.
Londonderry High School and Sanborn Regional High School brought in driving schools years ago and are pleased with the service.
“We have been very satisfied with our arrangement,” Sanborn principal Brian Stack said.
Sanborn uses Pro Staff Driving School. The district’s school safety officer, Rick Theriault, works as a company driving instructor, Stack said.
He said Sanborn has relied on a private driving school for the eight years he has been with the district.
“We have had a good relationship and don’t plan to change it,” Stack said.
Londonderry High principal Jason Parent said the district has not offered its own program in the 11 years he has been at the school.