Wake County can’t provide drivers for some special-ed students to get to school

School bus line waiting for kids Getty Images | Royalty Free
School bus line waiting for kids Getty Images | Royalty Free Getty Images/iStockphoto

Updated Aug. 28, 2019

Hundreds of Wake County special-education students are starting the new school year without transportation because of a lack of drivers to take them to school.

The Wake County school system contracts with different companies to provide transportation daily to 4,200 “exceptional children,” which includes special-needs, homeless and Pre-K students who can’t ride regular yellow school buses.

Wake notified families on Monday that due to an unexpected number of driver absences with Student Transportation of America — which is one of the companies — that some students aren’t getting transportation.

In an update Tuesday, Wake said it’s working to help the company recruit and hire new drivers and estimates the situation will be resolved by next week. The school district is also apologizing for the problems and said it’s working to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.

As part of the short-term fix, Student Transportation of America is recruiting Wake County substitute teachers to temporarily drive their vehicles for $13 an hour. Lisa Luten, a school district spokeswoman, said substitute teachers have flexible hours and have already cleared the district’s background checks.

“We know that having a positive ride to school is critical to having an effective day of learning,” Dee Luttrell, Wake’s director of special education transportation, said in Tuesday’s update. “We also know you expect prompt communication from us regarding your child’s transportation.

“These expectations were not met, and we’re investigating to understand why and how this occurred. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused your family.”

The situation has left special-education parents frustrated. They’ve long complained about the quality of transportation service provided to special-needs students.

@WCPSS you really need to hold @RideSTBus accountable,” Amanda Bowman, a Wake parent, tweeted Tuesday. “I haven’t been called regarding my child’s transportation needs, noone answers the phone let alone return voicemails. They are a contracted vendor not holding up there end of the contract — who’s gonna stand for our kids?”

A spokesman for Student Transportation of America did not return a phone call and email Tuesday from The News & Observer requesting comment.

Another special-education parent, Kristin Cook, called the situation a “debacle.”

“How many of our kids will face disciplinary action because their routines are so thrown off today?” Cook tweeted Tuesday. “I’ve already heard of several students who faced suspension yesterday after meltdowns triggered by being thrown into the school day an hour or more late.”

For those without service yet, Wake told families that it will have details shortly about how they can be reimbursed for their mileage if they provide their own transportation.

In contrast to the special-education issues, Wake says it had enough drivers to staff every one of the school system’s 768 yellow school bus routes.

Wake made changes to the transportation contracts last school year, including altering the way it pays the companies and taking over responsibility for drawing up their routes. Wake has to pay a premium rate to the companies to provide more vehicles than contracted.

Earlier this year, the Wake County Board of Commissioners gave the school system an extra $5 million to help cover what were termed “unanticipated” extra costs from transporting special-needs students and from excessive school bus repairs.

School leaders have said it costs significantly more to transport special-education students, around $20 million a year, due to how individual vehicles are transporting a small number of students. Wake also pays to have a safety monitor in each vehicle.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.