Columbus Struggling With Bus Driver Shortage

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Columbus City Schools contracts with some private bus companies, including First Student.
Columbus City Schools contracts with some private bus companies, including First Student.

Three months into the school year, Columbus City Schools continues to have trouble getting students to class and home again. Parents complain that school buses often are late, or never come at all.

Twice a day school bus drivers travel around the city to bring students to school and then take them home. But, some students are waiting at bus stops for a long time before the bus arrives.

Destinee Dunn says it’s happened to her eleven-year-old daughter.

There’s never a notice. I’m sitting at the bus stop 7:35 comes, I call the school. I always ask is there a delay, and she says yea we’re on the phone with them now trying to figure it out.

Dunn says if the bus doesn’t get to her daughter’s bus stop before she has to leave, she takes her daughter home. An administrator at her daughter’s school, Columbus Collegiate Academy West, then comes to pick her up.

“Recently I’ve just been saying okay, well Kailee will be at home and you can come pick her up, if not, then she’s not coming in today because I have to go to work.”

Founder of the Columbus Collegiate Academy West, Andrew Boy, says bus problems occur frequently.

“There’s been a lot of delays, so students arriving to school late, we’re having to start classes late. And then students getting picked up very late,” Boy says.

Director of Transportation for Columbus City Schools, Steve Simmons, admits problems exist. He says there have been some routing issues, but he places much of the blame on a shortage of drivers.

Simmons says normally the schools would have 530 drivers available to handle up to 505 of their own bus routes.

But right now they have only 475 drivers, not enough for all the routes.

You have to double and triple up routes or cover routes. And what that does is that does affect our on time performance. Because for every person that’s not at work you have to assume that you’re going to have at least one or two other routes that are going to be late because you have to blend those stops into those routes that were currently running on time.

Columbus City Schools also uses private school bus companies. First Student handles more than 250 school bus routes, including those for Columbus Collegiate Academy West.

First Student spokeswoman Maureen Richmond admits there were some bus route challenges at the beginning of the school year, but now buses are running more smoothly.

“We have enough drivers to cover the number of routes that we have,” Richmond says. “I think we’ve made great strides in the routing that were provided by the school district. And our buses are moving much more significantly on an on-time performance basis.”

One reason for a shortage of drivers is tougher qualifying standards.

Columbus City Schools’ Steve Simmons says state and federal regulations tightened over the past 5 years.

If you had an original DUI that may have been pleaded down to a reckless op or some other thing other than the DUI, you’re not eligible to drive a school bus anymore.

Simmons says the drivers also must get a criminal background check, and Columbus City Schools requires them to be at least 25 years old. They also have to pass a physical and an applicant with diabetes can be disqualified.

“You have to assume that because of the background check and everything they’re a great person, but sometimes great people just don’t work out for whatever reason,” Simmons says.

Columbus school buses serve more than just district students. They drive students to charter schools, Catholic schools and other private schools.

Columbus City School Board member Mike Wiles says the school district is under pressure to meet its legal obligations to provide bus service to a variety of schools.

“I don’t know how much more they can do, I mean it’s like I said at the board meeting. At some point, you come to a tipping point, where you’re doing everything you can do, you just can’t get it done.”

To get more drivers hired, the Columbus City Schools held a job fair in October. More than 50 people applied, 35 of them are being interviewed and those who are successful will then have several weeks of training. The drivers make about $16 dollars an hour.

The district also signed on two more private bus contractors while more drivers are hired by the district.

Until then, some students and parents will wait and hope the bus comes as scheduled.

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