Howard County Times

Howard County to add 250 school buses through Zum as contractors compete for drivers amid shortage

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As the Howard County Public Schools System’s academic year comes to a close, the race to find school bus drivers for August is gearing up.

Like many districts across the country, Howard has grappled with chronic driver shortages in recent years, with the number of vacancies sitting at 95 as of Wednesday, according to school spokesperson Brian Bassett.


Earlier this week, California-based company Zum Services announced it would be purchasing 250 brand-new school buses to serve HCPSS as part of a contract awarded by the school board in January worth $81 million over three years. Zum spokesperson Jenny Mayfield said the company began hiring drivers in April and is “roughly halfway” to their target.

“There’s a very specific reason why we were looking to work with Howard County,” said Zum co-founder Vivek Garg. “We spoke to the parents, we spoke to the district, we spoke to the community leaders. We found that knowing the challenges and the [mindset] to bring the change, this was the ideal partner for someone like Zum.”


But with approximately half of the bus routes in the district now belonging to Zum, many of the of county’s 23 current bus contractors say they remain uncertain how or if their services will be used next fall as they compete with the new company for an already limited pool of drivers.

“As of right now as a contractor, I know nothing about what’s going to happen to my buses and my contracts in two months when school starts back up,” said Mitch Gunther of M.B.G. Enterprises, Inc., which operates more than 30 routes for the district.

Mayfield said approximately 60% of the drivers Zum has hired are already certified or existing school bus drivers and the remaining 40% are brand new to the field. She added that the company was inviting all drivers who have driven in HCPSS zones awarded to Zum to apply and “retain or continue driving their routes.”

According to its website, Zum will be offering Howard drivers $26-$30 per hour depending on experience. Michael Bowen, who operates more than 50 HCPSS routes this year, says contractors typically pay between $21.50 and $24 an hour but are looking to increase their rates to remain competitive.

Last month, contractors submitted a proposal asking the school system for an 8% increase on existing contracts to help boost rates and retain drivers but have yet to hear back, according to Bowen.

“Our contracts just can’t support that kind of hourly wage right now,” Bowen said. “We just want to know if we’re going to be able to get an increase so that we can compete and pay our drivers what Zum’s planning on paying theirs.”

Bus contractors, Bowens Bus Service, Inc., Viennas Transportation, Inc., Woodlawn Motor Coach, Inc., HOB Enterprises, LLC., Transwhite, Inc., and Blue Horizons, Inc., park their buses near the Howard County Public Schools Board of Education building. Howard County bus contractors are gathering outside the Board of Education building Thursday, May 4, 2023 to protest transportation overhauls and reduced bus service for the 2023-2024 school year.

Bowen said he was shocked to see Zum’s contract breakdown to about $117,000 per route, when existing contractors’ requests for $85,000 minimums to help secure pay raises and benefits had been rejected for years.

“We’ve raised our hiring wages to $26.25-$30.25,” Gunther said. “If I have to compete with Zum, I’ll compete with them. I don’t know how long I can compete with them, because I’m not getting the rates that Howard County’s giving them, which they wouldn’t give us.”


Baltimore resident Chrissy Seal had driven buses in Howard for 14 years with contractor M.B.G. Enterprises but left in April to join Zum after being offered the chance to train fellow drivers as a state-certified instructor.

“A big thing for most bus drivers is the pay and very few contractors offer 401Ks,” Seal said.

Along with receiving more benefits, Seal said she was impressed by Zum’s technology platforms, which includes an app that lets parents track a bus’s location, view a driver’s profile and even rate their child’s ride on a five-point scale.

“It’s well overdue if you ask me,” Seal said. “It keeps drivers safe, it keeps kids safe. There’s driver accountability at all times.”

Garg said the average rating in the U.S. is 4.9 and that any parent who gives a three-star or below review will receive a same-day call from Zum staff to ask what went wrong. While Howard County is Zum’s first East Coast operation, the company also serves school districts in California, Washington, Texas, Illinois and Tennessee.

Prospective Howard County Zum drivers participate in a training session.

Garg said Zum is training a new class of Howard drivers every Monday and expects to ramp up hiring after the end of the school year on Wednesday.


“Drivers who might be displaced because of half of the contract[s] being awarded to us, who feel that they might get displaced, we have a job for them,” Garg said. “It’s an equal employment opportunity and people should make their decision where they want to be.”

Despite the county’s driver shortage, HCPSS maintained service for its 478 routes this year through the use of “double backs,” in which drivers pick up and drop off one group of students before returning to pick up a second group for a separate route. But double backs will be eliminated next year since all school bell times were condensed into three tiers, affording drivers less flexibility with their schedules.

To implement later start times, the school board approved a series of transportation overhauls, including expanding student walk zones, mandating bus rider registration and voting in June 2022 to terminate all existing local contracts in order to bid out all routes to new vendors.

While the school board rescinded the terminations in December after 18 contractors filed a class-action lawsuit, they then awarded 288 routes to Zum and Tip Top Transportation, an existing contractor, in January. The lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice — meaning it can still be refiled — on Jan. 17 but contractors say they haven’t heard an offer from the school system’s mediation team since March.

“The mediation is still ongoing and therefore, the school system is unable to comment,” Bassett said in an email Wednesday.

Contractors say they are still in the dark as to how existing contracts will be combined with the 288 routes awarded to Tip Top and Zum for the new school year. Gunther said he remains skeptical that Zum purchasing 250 new buses will fix a driver shortage that has persisted for years, especially as drivers are pulled from existing contractors still serving the school system.


“If Zum is successful … that knocks out my contracts,” Gunther said. “Unless the school board is just going to pay us to sit there and do nothing, and I don’t see that happening, most likely it’ll probably just go right back to the lawsuit where they awarded our contracts to another contractor and we’ll have to go to court and battle it out.”