HAVERHILL —  With the start of school just weeks away, the Coppola Bus company is finalizing the transfer of ownership to NRT Bus Inc., a North Reading-based company that provides school busing services to many area communities, including Haverhill, where it already provides transportation for students with special needs.

The two companies received approval this week from the School Committee to make the transition.

Nelson Blinn, 74, a local accountant who bought half of Coppola Bus in 1984 then the other half in 2004, said it's time to pass his company on. He said he has known John McCarthy, who founded NRT in 1988, for many years.

"John is very sensitive, as I am, about the safety of children," Blinn said. "All the years I've been in this business, I've considered every child I transport as my own."

Blinn said he agreed to serve as a consultant to NRT for three years.

"I'll probably still drop by every morning before heading to my office on Bailey Boulevard," he said. 

McCarthy, president and owner of NRT, said his company has been in Haverhill for eight years serving the transportation needs of Haverhill public school students with special needs. The company also provides summer transportation for the school department.

"You'll just see more of us," he said. "Technically, this is an acquisition of Coppola Bus, as we're buying the property (bus depot) in Bradford, as well as 40 buses."

McCarthy said he plans to retain Coppola's 32 drivers. Trained school bus drivers are hard to come by these days, he said.

"Right now our focus is to ensure a smooth transition of ownership of the vehicles and to make sure children get to school safely and on time," McCarthy said. "We want to make sure every licensed driver has the opportunity to continue those routes, as it takes a lot to train a school bus driver."

Blinn said his trainers are also school bus drivers who have morning and afternoon routes, while McCarthy said he has full-time trainers.

"We have our own training facility and last year we trained 800 drivers, as I also own other school bus companies, including Trombly Motor Coach and SP&R Transportation," McCarthy said.

NRT's corporate office is located in North Reading. The company has terminals (bus depots) in Methuen, Lowell, Lynn, North Reading, Hudson, Newbury and North Andover.

McCarthy said his company operates about 2,100 vehicles in about 35 communities, including Lawrence, Andover, North Andover and Haverhill.

"We are a fairly large company but we still run it like a mom and pop company," he said. "We continue to run it like the first day I started it and I'm involved on a daily basis."

Blinn said Coppola Bus was started by Frank Coppola in 1936 and that Coppola passed it on his sons, Frank and John.

Blinn bought half the company from Frank in 1984, and the other half from John in 2004.

Blinn said it's been very difficult to find bus drivers, which prompted him to offer signup bonuses — first of $5,000 then of $7,500. The perk resulted in just one new driver.

"It's difficult to get a license as it requires a written exam, a CORI check and a physical even before they can be trained, and the training hours were upped from 40 to 60 hours," he said. "The road test is more involved as well, although it's all done to ensure the safety of children."

He said his drivers typically work 20 to 25 hours a week, although some take on additional duties, such as after-school and weekend sports transportation.

"It's not a bad job for a mother, as we have special seats on the bus for a driver's child," he said. "We've been doing everything possible to recruit new drivers and this is not just a Haverhill problem, it's a national problem."