Some Wake special-ed kids don’t have transportation service weeks after school began

A vehicle from Student Transportation of America sits outside Fox Road Elementary School in Raleigh, NC, on Sept. 11, 2019 after dropping off a student at school.
A vehicle from Student Transportation of America sits outside Fox Road Elementary School in Raleigh, NC, on Sept. 11, 2019 after dropping off a student at school.

Some Wake County special-education students are still experiencing problems getting transportation service weeks into the start of the new school year.

Hundreds of Wake County special-needs students started the school year without service because Student Transportation of America, one of the companies hired by the school district, didn’t have enough drivers. In a Friday update, Wake school officials said that “while we can report that service has been restored for most families, we regret to report that it has not been restored for all.”

“This is unacceptable for you and it is unacceptable for us,” Dee Luttrell, Wake’s director of special education vendor transportation, said in the email to families. “Resolving this issue continues to be our top priority.”

Luttrell outlined several steps Wake is taking, including getting real-time data on when students arrive and leave school and “prioritizing the investigations” when schools report drivers aren’t transporting students.

Wake is asking special-education parents to call their school if the driver isn’t picking their children up. Luttrell said schools have been told to contact the district’s transportation department immediately if they receive a call from a parent so they can begin investigating.

Luttrell also said that Wake will start a customer service call center by the end of the month dedicated to special-education transportation. She said this will allow parents to reach district transportation staff “directly and quickly.”

Some parents have complained about not being able to reach anyone in Wake transportation or at STA.

“We just want someone to communicate with us,” North Raleigh special-education parent Rita Kiesler said in an interview last week. “We understand a little bit more about the situation now. They’re trying to get transportation for us, but they’re also trying to get up to speed and get enough drivers. But no one communicates with us.”

The Wake County school system pays around $20 million a year to several companies to provide daily transportation to 4,200 “exceptional children,” which includes special-needs, homeless and Pre-K students who can’t ride regular yellow school buses.

Student Transportation of America was one of the new companies hired by Wake for this school year. But problems emerged on the first day of traditional-calendar schools on Aug. 26, with around 300 students not getting picked up for classes.

Not enough drivers to transport students

Denis Gallagher Jr., STA’s vice president of southeast operations, blamed the problems on 125 of the 340 people it hired and trained “having no intention of working for our company,” according to a statement released Thursday. He said those new drivers gave the company inaccurate contact information.

But Gallagher said they’ve since hired enough new drivers to cover all their routes and still have 20 backup drivers available. He said STA is in “constant communication” with the school district, which “keep us informed on any additional changes that need to be made and upon receiving that information, we take action immediately.”

“We sincerely thank the public for its patience throughout the process and understand there is still some work to do,” Gallagher said in the statement. “We will continue to make enhancements and build on the recent momentum continuing to make strides while providing safe transportation to the community.”

But several parents say the problems have not gone away.

Erin Wall of Cary said she now drives her 7-year-old son, Carter, home from school because the driver regularly came late. She said the last straw was having him wait an hour after-school for the driver. Wall said the driver told her that she’d never be on time because of the length of her route.

”They need to adjust her route so that all those kids can get home from school on time or they need to adjust Carter’s route,” Wall said.

Chris Daniel of Garner estimates he called the school system and STA around 40 times last week due to his 4 1/2 year-old son not getting picked up two mornings in a row.

“It just feels like the county has gone in search of the lowest bidder and it gets worse and worse,” Daniel said. “They’re not putting the needs of the kids up front.”

Parents say the problems are taking a toll on their children, who are some of the district’s most vulnerable students.

Kiesler said she was heartbroken when her 15-year son, who has autism, told him no one cares about him because he kept arriving late for school.

“For kids who already struggling in the classroom, to throw them in at two-thirds of the way or at the end of a class gives them a lot of anxiety,” Kiesler said. “These are the kids who need consistency the most to thrive, and they’re not getting it.”

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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.