Howard County school officials hope an $8,000 signing bonus to attract licensed bus drivers and help from small bus contractors will solve the transportation crisis that upended the first week of school in the county.
Superintendent Michael Martirano did not promise the county could resume yellow bus service for 2,400 students on 20 routes that were suspended this week after Zūm, a Silicon Valley transportation company, failed to provide the service.
The focus for much of the problem has been on Zūm, the tech company that has a three-year, $27 million contract to operate nearly half of Howard County’s school bus routes. The company was hired in February with promises of providing not just an efficient ride to school, but one on brand-new buses with the capability to give parents real-time information on where their child was during the day’s commute to school.
Instead, the company struggled to get bus drivers as many independent contractors have since the pandemic. The company flew in 70 drivers from Washington state to fill in.
Martirano, speaking at a school board meeting Thursday evening, said Zūm leadership had told him they are providing an additional $500 a week bonus for drivers who go four weeks without an absence as well as an $8,000 incentive to attract new drivers who are licensed. Those incentives, he said, were working.
Unfortunately, Martirano said, some of those 70 drivers have to go back to the West Coast this weekend to cover routes for their own districts. Their school systems open Tuesday. So the new drivers will backfill the Washington state drivers who are leaving. But the company will not be able to fill the 20 routes that had to be suspended earlier this week.
As a result, Martirano said, the school system is reaching out to other independent contractors who could fill those 20 routes next week. “We are working with other contractors in our area to assess their ability to fulfill additional routes so that we can restore the currently suspended routes that I communicated this week,” he said. School system staff are expected to present him with a solution to the problem at a meeting Friday.
“I have to provide emergency stopgap measures. That is urgently in front of us,” Martirano said.
School board members as well as members of the public expressed anger at the poor communications between the school system and parents and students. Martirano acknowledged the problem, apologized and said he is working to correct the issue.
Some school board members said they wanted an external review of the transportation debacle. Martirano said he had already begun the process to hire an external auditor to do the review.
School officials said a number of contractors, not just Zūm, were having issues transporting students on time. Zūm was the only contractor that did not have enough drivers.
Problems began to happen before school started on Monday, when 200 buses attempted to get out of one exit. In addition, 20 bus drivers failed to show up for work. After those issues, there was a cascade of failures that resulted in hourlong delays, and some children were never picked up in the morning or evening.
School board members asked why 17 of the routes that aren’t working are in Columbia, and why Atholton High School had been disproportionately affected. School officials said Zūm determined which routes would not be staffed.
The problems with the transportation resulted in part from school start time changes that began this school year. The school system has routinely had 90 vacancies for bus drivers at the beginning of the year, but the system was able to operate because there was enough time between school start times that drivers could double the number of routes they drove.
That changed this year, and school officials acknowledged they would probably need to adjust the start times in order to avoid delays. School officials said that delays on some routes would continue until adjustments are made. The school system determines the routes, not the contractors.
The school system acknowledged that some of the issues were its own fault.
“I’m extremely disappointed that there were errors that occurred that could have been mitigated that were not. These include ... many errors in the data in the routes provided to contractors, causing drivers to become lost during their student pickup and drop-off,” Martirano said.
There was improvement as the week progressed. On Tuesday, children on about 340 of 503 bus routes were late arriving to school. That number was reduced on Wednesday and Thursday to about 200.
The superintendent also expressed concerns that some students with disabilities who ride in vans rather than school buses had not been staffed with an assistant, against their student plans.
And, he said, he is focused on making sure there are enough extra staff to help prekindergarteners, who are so small they may not be able to step up the bus steps into the buses.