Two days before Zum’s roughly 200 brand-new buses would file out of their Jessup bus yard and pick up thousands of Howard County students for the first time, the transportation company was caught off guard — school system leaders had changed some of the bus routes, and some of them contained errors.
Some routes that previously called for buses now needed vans. Some of the routes listed zero kids for pickup. And their new drivers, many unfamiliar with the area, wouldn’t have a chance to do a test run of the revised routes.
“What a disaster,” wrote one Zum executive in an email that Saturday morning.
Correspondence between the Howard County Public School System and its largest bus contractor, obtained by The Baltimore Banner in a public records request, sheds new light on the missteps that led to a chaotic start to the school year, when 2,400 students were left without a ride to school and many more arrived home hours after the last bell.
Zum, the California-based startup with a $27 million contract to operate nearly half the school system’s bus routes, knew in early August there wouldn’t be enough local bus drivers for the first day of school, the correspondence shows. Emails also show that school system staff fumbled the handoff of finalized routes to Zum, forcing company executives and school officials to work all night trying to mitigate the crisis.
Three months later, school officials are tepidly celebrating that their transportation woes are mostly behind them. And while many Howard County parents are relieved to feel they can depend on the school bus again, others say the school system has a long way to go to earn back their trust.
Years in the making
The events that led to this fall’s school bus crisis started in 2021, when Howard County schools began considering later start times for high schools. Until last school year, high school classes started at 7:25 a.m. — too early for teenagers, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But a change to the bell schedule would create a time crunch for bus drivers, many of whom double back to take elementary and middle school students to school after dropping off high schoolers.
With the help of a consulting firm, the school system found a way to change bell times without spending more money on student transportation services. It landed on a three-tier system of staggered start times and a policy change that increased the distance kids would be required to walk to school before they could qualify for a bus ride — in effect cutting bus service for roughly 3,500 students.
The school system, which doesn’t have its own fleet of school buses, also created a new process for choosing bus contractors. Zum, which promised state-of-the-art school buses and a mobile app that would allow parents to track their children’s journeys to and from school, was selected to operate about 230 of the county’s 500 bus routes for the next three years. It would offer competitive pay for drivers, in part to attract more people to the job amid a regional shortage of about 100 drivers.
It turns out that wasn’t enough.
Zum had “tremendous interest” from prospective drivers, an executive wrote in an Aug. 16 email, and was on track to create roughly a dozen certified drivers a week through its training program. But with just under two weeks left until the first day of school, it had 72 drivers still in the process of completing classroom and behind-the-wheel training required by the company and the school system.
At that point, Zum had already finalized paperwork and travel arrangements for 72 drivers to fly in from Washington state to help cover routes in the early days of the school year, according to an Aug. 3 email from Zum executives to school system officials.
In an interview with The Banner earlier this month, Zum COO Vivek Garg explained that the out-of-state drivers were the backup plan. The company requires more hours of training for its drivers than the district mandates, and that behind-the-wheel training happens one at a time. Executives worried that the bottleneck would frustrate would-be drivers who were ready to start earning a paycheck.
“It cannot happen that I start training 200 people in the classroom because there will be a bottleneck when they come behind the wheel,” said Garg.
That explanation differs from the one the company gave in late August, when it blamed “a significant logjam in the State certification process” for delays getting drivers on the road. A spokesperson for the Motor Vehicle Administration, which issues commercial driver’s licenses, told The Banner at the time it did not have a backlog to test school bus drivers.
Zum wasn’t the only company struggling with a bus driver shortage in the area, said Jahantab Siddiqui, Howard County Schools’ chief administrative officer, in a recent interview. He noted that another contractor informed the school system with little lead time that it would be unable to fulfill all of its routes. This, in part, fueled the last-minute route changes.
According to Garg, HCPSS was supposed to deliver finalized routes to the company in time for drivers to do test runs. Instead, Zum got the final routes two days before the first day of school and worked through the weekend to try to upload the routes into its proprietary navigation software. All Zum drivers get outfitted with a tablet that shows student rider lists and turn-by-turn route navigation.
But in the first week of school, families and students in Howard County reported seeing confused drivers flipping through paper routes.
“We provided the electronic routes, but we also provided the paper routes because technology can fail,” said Siddiqui, adding that paper routes were often the standard for its bus contractors in the past. “There wasn’t enough time to make sure that the technology transferred seamlessly, but then there were some errors within those routes as well.”
All told, some of Zum’s drivers, many of whom came from across the country and were unfamiliar with the area, went into Monday morning without a practice run of the changes or real-time navigation.
The challenges were compounded when 20 Zum drivers failed to show up for work on the first day of school, according to the company. Garg said that was a first, and it shocked the school system, too.
“We began Monday morning on Aug. 28 with the information that every route was staffed and came to learn that 20 drivers just did not show up,” said Siddiqui. Then Zum informed the system it couldn’t cover 20 routes that week, leaving thousands of students without a ride. It took until the fourth week of school for the last of the suspended routes to be restored.
Superintendent Michael Martirano used his executive power to move middle and high school start times 10 minutes earlier effective Sept. 20, allowing more slack time for bus drivers to double back for another busload of kids.
Bus contractors servicing schools on just one or two of the start-time tiers largely had no issues, Siddiqui said, but companies servicing schools across all three tiers had problems. The school system sent administrators out to schools to check arrival times in person and used bus GPS data to confirm this.
Siddiqui and Garg said modifying start times was a critical step in righting the ship. Two weeks later, on Oct. 5, Zum announced it had logged two weeks of nearly 100% on-time buses. And Garg told The Banner that the success has continued.
“When the district made the changes to the bell time system and created that slack, we have not missed even one route, ever,” said Garg. The company now employs 271 drivers, which Garg notes is a surplus, allowing for coverage around unforeseen circumstances like drivers calling out or tier 1 buses getting held up in traffic.
Halloween brought the latest transportation challenge as the school system braced for its first early dismissal — Siddiqui said that the buses ran without a hitch and even finished routes early.
“We’ve already unpacked a lot of what went wrong on every level so that we can document that and make sure that that doesn’t happen again, especially as we plan for the next year,” said Siddiqui.
After watching their children’s buses show up late, miss stops or make wrong turns, some parents have lost trust in Zum and the school system. Parents have organized town halls to discuss transportation concerns; others have shared conspiracy theories around the origins of the school district’s new transportation policy and its connection to Zum. One parent told The Banner that she and her neighbors started putting personal tracking devices like Apple AirTags in their kids’ backpacks because they didn’t trust the buses.
Zum’s mobile app, which allows students and families to track their buses in real time, went live in Howard County a few weeks after school started. It had been ready to go all along, according to emails between Zum and the school system, but school officials wanted it disabled until they could ensure its accuracy and privacy standards.
For parents like Laurie Keith of Ellicott City, the app has provided some peace of mind, allowing her to easily track the buses for both her middle schooler and elementary student.
“It’s definitely better than going in blind without any information,” Keith said.
Much like with rideshare services Uber or Lyft, parents can rate their children’s rides through the Zum app. Zum told The Banner that as of Nov. 7, 97% of its 6,600 ratings were four or five stars.
But some families said it’s been inaccurate at times, further eroding their trust. Joseph Ike of Columbia, for example, recalled driving to his first-grader’s school to pick him up for a doctor’s appointment after the Zum app displayed his bus idling in the pickup loop well after it should have departed. But it was actually nearing his stop for drop-off — when Ike walked into the school office, he was told the last bus left school 20 minutes earlier.
“Last year, we had no Zum app, no Zum, and transportation was not on my list of concerns,” Ike said. “They are solving a problem I did not have in the first place.”
Garg said Zum will continue to work hard to earn parents’ trust.
“While we understand the frustrations at the start of the school year, we are confident that Zum is the right partner for this community,” Garg said in an email. “In just five months, we turned an inherited 100-driver deficit into a surplus. Our technology and drivers are helping kids get to school on time in the overwhelming majority of circumstances, and we’ve raised the bar on training and safety in this community.”
Meanwhile, Zum bus drivers have filed with the National Labor Relations Board seeking a vote on union representation. And Martirano, Howard County schools superintendent, announced he would be retiring in January, about two-and-a-half years before the end of his contract.
No matter who’s leading, Siddiqui said the school system is “committed to making sure that we take the lessons learned from this year’s implementation to ensure that that doesn’t happen again.”
“There are processes and checklists in place so that no matter who’s in the transportation office, no matter who the contractor is, no matter who the drivers are, no matter who’s in my seat, that we make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.