Drivers for the city school system's largest bus contractor - as well as the parents of some children who ride the firm's buses - charge the company is operating unsafe vehicles and providing inadequate training and shoddy maintenance.
Baltimore schools officials and representatives of the company, First Student Inc., insist the buses are safe, attributing the complaints to an effort by the Teamsters union to organize drivers. They say they have enough confidence in First Student to recently approve a $5.7 million contract with the company for next school year.
But drivers and parents point to problems such as broken speedometers and leaks in bus roofs as evidence of danger, and they say the school system has been reluctant to do anything because the city's head of student transportation used to be employed by First Student.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is organizing a rally today at a First Student bus lot on Philadelphia Road in an effort to spotlight the problems, as well as drivers' efforts to organize. First Student drivers in Baltimore will vote June 1 whether to join the union.
"When the yellow school bus shows up, people think their kids are safe," said Sheila Wactor, a First Student driver who is pro-union. "But that's not the case. Parents need to get on the bus to see what is really happening."
School system officials say they have been impressed with the willingness of First Student - which transports more than 1 million children each day across the country - to address concerns, including some raised by drivers.
"We get the sense that safety is a key priority for First Student," said Eric Letsinger, the city school system's chief operating officer.
In Baltimore, school buses are mostly used for transportation of special education students. Others typically live close enough to walk, and older students rely on public buses.
The school system has struggled with student transportation in recent years.
Two years ago, 136 special education students missed 3,456 hours of services such as speech therapy in the first month of the school year because buses never showed up to take them to classes.
Last year, 164 special education students missed 570 hours of services during about the same time period. Those missed services are the subject of a lawsuit against the city school system and the state.
State education officials, who have helped to reorganize the city's school bus operations, say the situation has improved. They are working with the city to train "transportation coordinators" who will make sure students get where they need to go, and the city is installing Global Positioning System technology on school buses to track their locations.
"This will put the city school system in the forefront with the use of technology in the state," said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education and early intervention. "There are still some problems, but I think we are on our way to solving them."
But Teamsters officials say the city, including the head of transportation, Donald Swift, a former contract manager for First Student in Baltimore, is not serious about improving bus safety and maintenance. The union says that the city's recently signed contract with First Student, a document that was revised by Swift, lacks the checks and balances necessary to ensure that First Student and other bus companies transport students in a safe and timely manner.
"From our perspective, it seems like the contract has been gutted," said Jon Hartough, a senior research analyst for the Teamsters. "And that is primarily because Don Swift is now the director of transportation."
Hartough says that Swift has adjusted the new, five-year contract to help bus companies, including First Student, avoid penalties for service problems such as late buses or maintenance trouble. In recent years, contracts allowed the school system to fine firms $15 to $250 per incident, according to school system documents.
During his tenure with First Student, Swift complained often about the fines, said Hartough, who provided The Sun with copies of letters from Swift to several school officials, including two former directors of transportation and the former chief operating officer, Carlton Epps.
In a December 2003 letter to Epps, Swift wrote that First Student had disputed $100,000 in fines and that a "substantial" repayment had been promised. Swift called the fines a "liability" and said they were affecting his company's ability to work with the school system.
Hartough said it's no surprise that Swift got rid of the penalty system.
"If there was an accident where the bus was operating in an unsafe manner, that was a major fine under the old system," said Hartough. "But now it's hard to know what would happen. It's a step back because the check that the school board had in the past has been removed."
Letsinger disputed Hartough's assessment of the new contract, adding that while it lacks fines, it requires bus companies to cover the cost of transporting students by taxi if they aren't picked up properly. Letsinger said that contractors who miss routes will not be paid. He said there are termination clauses in the contract that give the school system plenty of muscle.
"I'm not concerned about the contract," said Letsinger, who also dismissed the union's concerns regarding the contract bidding system, which awarded contracts based on fixed costs and not low bids. "There are tons of remedies in this contract."
First Student drivers say they are losing patience with school system officials, noting their complaints seemed to be ignored at a March 14 meeting with Letsinger. The city agreed to use its 311 call center to collect complaints about First Student buses, but there has been no publicity regarding the option.
Wactor, one of the school bus drivers pushing for change, said that when she complained about a broken speedometer last month she was told to go ahead and drive the bus anyway. "Just use common sense," Wactor said a First Student supervisor told her.
Wactor also said that it is common practice at First Student to put drivers out on the road before they have completed a mandatory training course offered through the school system's transportation office.
Tony Bennett, a First Student official who manages local operations, said that is not true. He said all drivers should attend training. He said he was surprised that some, including Wactor, had not.
Parent Cheryl Drummond of Cherry Hill said that she has complained for several months about a leaky roof on the First Student school bus that transports her granddaughter to school, but the leak has yet to be repaired. Her granddaughter, Trinique Thompson, 6, is in fragile health and uses a wheelchair.
"I am beginning to believe that they think this is a game," said Drummond, who has also called Mayor Martin O'Malley's office to complain about First Student. "I'm not playing about this. I'm not playing about Trinique."
Bennett, who oversees two bus lots and about 300 employees for First Student in Baltimore, defended his company's operations and said that leaky roofs and other maintenance problems should be addressed immediately. He said that sometimes bus drivers fail to report problems but that that once they do, mechanics do the repairs quickly.
"At no time would a bus go out there with any problem that would prevent it from being safe to transport students," Bennett said.
Bennett said that a national shortage of school bus drivers, as well as the union organizing activities on the bus lots, are making it difficult to cover all of the company's routes.
"First Student is very much aware of who the Teamsters are and what their agenda is," Bennett said. "The reality is that if it means hurting our business to organize, that is what they are going to do, and we are not going to let that happen."