The first day of school was a hectic one for Jennifer Johnson and her family.
The PTA member at Gunpowder Falls Elementary School recalls her child’s bus not showing up after waiting 40 minutes after its scheduled arrival time. So she, her wife and other parents at the bus stop scrambled to corral kids home and get permission to drive them to school.
The group of about a dozen students got to school 30 minutes late, she said.
“There are too many problems with transportation,” Johnson said. “This is not a new problem ... issues were chronic last year.”
Johnson was one of eight public commenters to speak out at the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday. The public meeting room was crowded and marked by bright signs calling for “safety first” and “improved transportation.”
The outpouring of support came shortly after a Baltimore Sun report that bus routes in Baltimore County are at times so crowded that students are sitting on the floor of buses, or 3 to 4 pupils to a seat.
School officials did not say Tuesday exactly how many drivers they employ, but have said they are short about 50 drivers. There is an excess of buses that are ready to drive on routes, officials said — they just need more drivers.
Following a lengthy presentation and round of questions from members of the school board, Board Chairwoman Kathleen Causey said the board would revisit the issue in the future.
Superintendent Darryl Williams said the school system “can do better, will do better" on transportation issues, and reiterated the need for support from the school board if driver compensation and other benefits are to change in order to improve recruitment and retention.
During Tuesday’s presentation, school system staff said one of the biggest issues with transportation in the county is recruiting and retaining staff.
For the last three fiscal years, Baltimore County has had a net gain of just one school bus driver.
In fiscal year 2017, the system hired 79 drivers but lost 72; in FY 2018, the system gained 70 but lost 77; and in FY 2019, the system gained 67 drivers and lost 66. A total of 216 drivers were hired in that time; 215 quit, retired or were fired.
In each of those years, most drivers resigned or retired. Ten or fewer drivers in each fiscal year were fired, according to school staff reports.
The pay rate for non-substitute bus drivers ranges from $16.20 an hour to $23.09 per hour, according to a hiring advertisement from the county. Substitute and trainee drivers are paid $16.20 an hour.
‘Three to four kids to a seat’
Students have to "sit and stand in the aisles,” said Jason Drake of Overlea-Fullerton said before Tuesday’s meeting. “When we reported this to the [school] administration and [its] Department of Transportation, they don’t really have a good answer. … They just keep telling us that they’re short on bus drivers.”
David Blaser, a representative for the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said bus drivers and bus attendants are “doing a tough job.”
“They’re the first persons on staff to see our students. And they’re the last ones to see them safely home. And yet they’re underpaid,” Blaser said.
Northeastern Baltimore County — particularly areas like Fullerton, Perry Hall and Kingsville — has borne the brunt of the transportation issues, County Councilman David Marks said.
“It’s not just delays, it’s overcrowding. This has happened the last three years,” Marks said.
The school system can begin solving the issues “by just following the law,” Jessica Drake, Jason Drake’s wife, said.
Jessica Drake noted the school system is violating a provision in Maryland Code which says a person responsible for pupils on a school bus may not require any pupil to sit on the floor.
On his son’s bus to Parkville Middle School, “they put three and four kids per seat,” and are “shoving them on top of each other,” Jason Drake said. “My son has had to sit on top of a 7th grader’s lap. … I think it’s been worse than in previous years.”
“We keep hearing it’s going to get better but I don’t know when," Jason Drake said.
The issue is particularly difficult for students with special needs, Ashley Dean said.
Her son, a special needs student, attends White Oak Elementary School. The lengthy bus rides and lack of consistency in drivers and aides on the bus “impacts his behavior” in school, she said.
He’s “walked off in the school,” and “he won’t cooperate with certain things. There’s been times he’s pleaded with me to find him another way to school,” she said.
“We don’t have a good sense of time over the bus, when it comes, we don’t have a consistent bus driver. It’s a different bus driver every day,” Dean said, adding her son “rides the bus from school every day from 3:35 p.m.” and doesn’t get home until 5:45 p.m., and sometimes as late as 7 p.m.
Parents who addressed the board during Tuesday’s meeting also lamented inconsistent communication from schools on delayed departures.
School system staff said they fielded over 7,000 calls about the status of buses during the first few weeks of school, and responded to around 500 emails.
Jess Grim, the county’s transportation director, acknowledged the need for improved communication. He said the school system needs to better communicate with parents and with schools if there will be delays on bus routes.
Grimm also said the school system will install radios on buses in limited parts of the county as a pilot program to improve communication between buses and schools. Officials said the program will start in one part of the county and will start this year.
“Parents deserve more” than “just case-by-case” solutions about the “systemic” issue, board member Lily Rowe said during the meeting.
“Please come back to us with something more,” she asked school transportation officials. She said she wanted school system staff to say specifically whether drivers need more compensation, benefits or technology to do their jobs.