School bus delays in Baltimore County, a long-simmering issue in the suburb, appear to have improved since the start of school.
Myriam Yarbrough, the system’s deputy superintendent, told the school board Tuesday night that on average, less than 2% of the bus rides between Sept. 13 and Oct. 10 were delayed. Of the 416 morning delays and the 700 afternoon delays, 64% of each were 30 minutes or less.
Before the start of classes on Aug. 29, there were 50 fewer drivers than usual. Yarbrough said Tuesday that the system has hired 30 bus drivers since Aug. 17 and contracted with another 36 drivers. There are 44 drivers in the pre-employment process.
The report card comes amid changes in the transportation department.
Last month, transportation director Jess Grim left the position and moved to another within the system. He now manages system development and implementation projects within various business operations. A school system spokesperson said in a message that she cannot speak to Grim’s reassignment. Meanwhile, Yarbrough said at the meeting that officials are still seeking a new transportation director.
But the system did hire two transportation experts to advise them on efficiency. District officials also met with stakeholders to make improvements, from reducing delays to communicating better with parents and students about timeliness.
Last school year, some of the county’s public school students would wait as long as an hour for their buses, if they showed at all. Parents would have to drive their kids and their classmates to school. Delays were common in the northeast region. As a result, the system asked parents in the area to register their kids for the bus before the school year started.
Frustrated by the delays, some members of the Baltimore County Council last spring called on Superintendent Darryl Williams to step down. The school board met in closed session after the letter from the council members but did not take any action. Williams’ contract is up next year.
Now parents are reporting overall positive results. In response to a Baltimore Banner social media post, one parent said the buses have been great, another called her middle schooler’s bus driver “wonderful,” and one parent said it’s been better overall.
Yarbrough said an app was piloted at three elementary schools so that parents could track where their children’s buses were.
One parent, Tori Sproat of Perry Hall, said she’s still waiting for access to the app since her child attends one of the pilot schools. In a screen recording she sent to The Banner, she scrolls through about two dozen texts from the past month that reported buses were running anywhere between 15 to 120 minutes late.
“One particular bus is at least 30 minutes late daily,” she said via social media. “It’s less than last year, so I guess technically it’s ‘improved.’ ”
She also said that while the afternoon bus for her elementary schooler is mostly on time, the drop-off is sometimes at 5 p.m. instead of the scheduled 4:20 p.m. Her middle schooler sometimes chooses to walk the 2 miles home when his bus is delayed because it’s faster.
Anne Arundel County schools are also working to improve transportation. At the start of the school year, 47 routes did not have bus drivers. The transportation office identified about 40 buses that have extended secondary school runs that make it “impossible” to pick up students from other schools. Starting Oct. 17, those buses will either exclusively transport middle school students in the morning or drive elementary students in the afternoon.
“I fully realize this is not the total solution that our families – and we – want,” Superintendent Mark Bedell said in a news release. “However, this will relieve at least some of the pressure on families who currently have to find ways to get their students both to and from school as we continue to work on other solutions.”
Baltimore County transports 77,000 students twice a day on 785 bus routes with about 800 buses. School officials announced over the summer that they had scrapped some of its pre-employment barriers. Drivers will not have to pay for fingerprinting, physical exams, drug testing and sleep apnea testing. Health care benefits are provided, drivers can take paid time off and wages start at $19.02 per hour.
New drivers are offered a $250 signing bonus, and employees are also offered $250 if they successfully refer someone for the job. Both drivers and attendants can receive a $1,000 transportation retention bonus.
Para-educators and adult assistants were asked to help drive buses. Certified central office staff have stepped in to drive, and the system asked retired staffers to return to the job.
Other adjustments to improve efficiency include increasing alternative school transportation options for students with disabilities and displaced students, implementing a two-way radio, updating discipline guidance and expanding the morning drop-off window for secondary school students.
“During the first two weeks of school, we secured additional support to help the office respond to parent inquiries,” Yarbrough said.
She said parents can contact the customer service clerks by emailing email@example.com and should receive a response within 48 hours. The call center can be reached at 443-809-4321 between the hours of 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Yarbrough said the transportation office changed the way that it notified schools of delays by “providing more concise and timely information to schools.” Changes are reported to schools by 7:05 a.m. for morning routes and 1:55 p.m. for afternoon trips.
“Further enhancements to the communication process will include the posting of bus changes and delays to the BCPS website in the upcoming weeks,” she said.
Longer-term solutions include system-wide confirmation of ridership and reviewing healthy school start times for students. Yarbrough said more information on that will be provided next quarter.
Board member Lily Rowe complimented Yarbrough and said the improvements in transportation are noted among the community.
“It’s not perfect but it’s definitely far improved from last year,” Rowe said.