Today is the first day of classes in the Columbus City Schools, but a major transportation snafu could leave students waiting for the school bus up to an hour an a half every day for as long as six weeks, as the district scrambles to hire enough drivers to staff over 700 bus routes.
Alison Holm explains how this situation developed.
JS: In my world, you either win or you lose, and this was definitely a loss. And I want to say publicly that I apologize to the citizens of this community, and to the parents and students of this community, that we have to go thru through type of situation.
At last night’s school board meeting, Deputy Superintendent John Stanford took responsibility for a chain of events that have left the district’s bus fleet woefully understaffed as the school year starts, but it’s not so clear where responsibility lies.
What is true is that the district is short 51 qualified bus drivers, drivers needed to transport 33,000 students every day. The short term solution, doubling up on routes, means high schoolers will be picked up on time in the morning, but elementary school students may be waiting up to a half an hour for their school bus to come. Interim Superintendent Dan Good explained to board members that the picture will flip in the afternoon.
DG: All the schools will dismiss at their regularly scheduled times and the elementary and middle school routes are expected to run on time for the drive home, because we felt that it was important for those children to be home and have supervision. However the buses may not be able to pick up all of the high school students until dropping off all of the elementary and middle school students, because they’re double-running.
That means high schoolers who are dismissed at 2:30 could be waiting until 4 or 4:30 for a school bus, although Good says they many have other options. Parents drive some, some students drive themselves, and some who received COTA bus passes last year can take public transportation. The district is planning a bulk purchase of temporary COTA passes to help students, but the district is still left with a major situation that didn’t develop overnight.
For many years the district contracted with private vendors to provide the bulk of student transportation. But last spring the largest of those vendors, First Student, announced a nearly 33% price increase, and then-Superintendent Gene Harris proposed taking over transportation. The district bought a fleet of 300 buses, leased space to keep them on, and set about hiring an additional 262 drivers, despite warnings that qualified bus drivers were hard to find. Last week it became obvious that the district was falling short, so Superintendent Good says they moved to Plan B.
DG: There was a contingency plan in the event that those drivers wouldn’t all be screened and capable of operating a coach. That contingency plan was to contract with other private vendors for drivers to sit behind those wheels and operate those coaches.
But those contracts were verbal commitments only, pending board approval of the over $400,000 package at Tuesday’s board meeting. And Monday Youngstown-based Community Bus Inc. announced they had signed a contract with a northeast Ohio district, and would be able to send only 3 drivers instead of 35, leaving the Columbus City Schools scrambling to double up on bus routes. Deputy Superintendent John Stafford and Transportation Director Steve Simmons told the board the district’s fleet will get up to speed – but it could take up to six weeks.
JS: We have over a hundred bus trainees that are going thru the process to become a bus driver. And as the board members know that is a 5 to 7 week program. And at the end of the process, they have to take a CDL test, and they have to take a test related to the bus certification credential that they have from the Department of Education.
SS: What will happen is, as each class goes through and passes, those people pass their test, the number of routes or drivers that we’ll be needing will diminish, and will slowly go away.
As of last night’s board meeting district officials couldn’t say which schools – or which routes would be affected. But they insist the situation will be resolved by the end of September.