RALEIGH — When thousands of Wake County students start a new school year Monday, one thing everyone wants to avoid is a repeat of bus problems that led to anger and uncertainty last year – and are costing millions of dollars to fix this year.
The scars from last year’s fiasco are still fresh on people’s minds. Thousands of students faced wildly erratic bus service. Two top school administrators lost their jobs.
This year, Wake is looking to hire 104 additional bus drivers, adding more buses on the road, offering bonuses to drivers and reorganizing the transportation department to try to make things better for the more than 75,000 students who ride the bus.
“We don’t anticipate anything like last year,” Bob Snidemiller, Wake’s senior director of transportation, said in an interview Friday. “The assignments haven’t changed much. We just need to make sure we have enough bodies driving the buses.”
The true test of how prepared Wake is will come Aug. 26 when traditional-calendar schools return, bringing back the majority of Wake’s more than 150,000 students. Only about 20,000 students are expected back Monday when the first group of year-round students report to class.
Snidemiller said he might put as many as 20 more buses on the road for this fall, raising the number in service to more than 940.
This time last year, Wake was removing 52 buses from its fleet in an effort to save money and help deal with a chronic driver shortage. The cutback came just as routes were revamped under a new choice-based student assignment plan, which ultimately added 10,000 more miles a day to the bus schedule.
What ensued during the first month of school were widespread complaints about buses arriving late or not coming at all. Wake wound up placing most of the sidelined buses back in service.
Don Haydon, the chief facilities and operations officer, resigned, and Superintendent Tony Tata was fired by the school board in September. The board also dropped the choice plan for 2013.
‘A guessing game’
While bus service eventually improved for some families, it continued to be an issue for others for months.
Christine Reinke said her children’s buses were still not regularly showing up at the same time until nearly the end of the school year.
“It was a guessing game from week to week,” said Reinke, a Cary parent. “You’d be surprised if it came on time for the whole week.”
Connie Helmlinger of Apex, like many parents, took on extra costs from driving her daughter to and from school because bus service was unreliable.
“By the end of the year, we were out several hundred dollars for before-school care and several days’ leave,” Helmlinger wrote in an email message.
To make things better this year, Wake is trying to increase the number of permanent drivers.
With pay starting at $11.89 an hour, Wake historically has had difficulty finding enough drivers. School officials say Wake’s pay scale is in line with what drivers are offered in other districts.
Wake’s goal has been to have one driver assigned to every bus, with substitutes filling in when someone is absent. But in recent years, they’ve needed the subs and even at times mechanics and supervisors to cover routes, because they didn’t have enough drivers.
So far, Wake has 850 drivers hired for the 925 to 945 buses that are expected to be running daily for the 2013-14 school year. Snidemiller ideally wants 945 permanent drivers for this fall, but he said at least 900 would work with substitutes handling the remaining routes.
“If we get up above 900, then I can feel confident we can have enough bodies for each bus,” Snidemiller said.
Tanya Rich, recruitment coordinator for Wake’s school transportation department, said recruiting is “going very well.”
A scheduled bus-driver training class later this month could have as many as 75 applicants, Rich said, provided they pass background checks. Snidemiller said they’re hoping to get enough applicants to work with the state Division of Motor Vehicles to have two classes this month.
Rich said they’re getting interest from truck drivers who are out of work, stay-at-home mothers who want to get out of the house and retirees looking for additional income.
Retention and referral bonuses
To help with the recruitment, Wake offers a $100 bonus to bus drivers who refer a person who becomes a fully licensed driver in the district. Rich said drivers who were hired under a similar referral program in the past were more likely to last.
As an incentive to retain drivers who have been recruited and trained, the school board last month approved bonuses of up to $1,000 for bus drivers who have good attendance in the new school year.
But school board member John Tedesco questioned whether spending up to $1.1 million for the attendance bonus is the best way to address the driver shortfall. He said alternatives such as providing child care for the drivers, who typically work from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., might be more effective.
“I certainly believe our drivers are underpaid and have a hard job,” Tedesco said. “The option the board took, I didn’t feel there was enough discussion.”
The school board approved in February a $2.25 million plan to reorganize the transportation department, including hiring more customer service representatives and new staff members who eventually will take over development of bus routes.
Even with all the changes, Wake will have a tough time winning over some families after what happened last year.
“If I was a parent, I would be in the position that you have to prove to me you can keep the system running,” said school board member Tom Benton. “We do a pretty good job of that.”
Snidemiller said families should be patient the first two to three weeks of the school year as the routes are revised based on which students choose to ride the bus. Wake’s goal is to have most students riding the bus less than one hour each way. But during the first few weeks, buses may run 20 to 30 minutes late.
Most routes are expected to be the same as they were last year, he said.
“Parents are going to be happier and see more consistency,” Snidemiller said.