School bus delays earn low grade from frustrated parents
Daniel Island 10th grader Tory Lysik isn’t worried about being prepared for her Human Geography Advanced Placement class at Hanahan High School. What concerns her is whether or not she’ll get there in time to take part.
Tory rides the bus to and from school each day from a bus stop near her home on Daniel Island. According to her mother, Kristin, she is late to school most of the time because the bus doesn’t always arrive to pick up students when it’s supposed to. Her AP class takes place during the first period of the day. On a recent Wednesday, Tory arrived an hour after class began.
“She’s never on time,” said Kristin. “That’s just never an option. She is anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes late every day. The thought of missing her AP class, that’s why she’s in a panic. It’s her most important class. The school is so used to (the kids running late) that they are ready with passes when they arrive. How do these kids get a jump on anything? I can’t imagine.”
Kristin is not alone in her frustrations. Daniel Island resident Kathleen Susol reports that her son, Jakob, has also experienced delays in getting to and from school.
“It’s crazy,” said Kathleen. “It’s just the unreliability that bothers me.”
Jakob, also a 10th grader at Hanahan High School, and a few of his fellow Daniel Island students are at their bus stop by 7:40 a.m. every morning, Monday through Friday. Changing drivers and frequent delays have become the new normal, he said. Jakob and his fellow riders have to switch buses in the Shell Ring neighborhood every day after school before hopping on another bus to finish their route. One afternoon last week, he didn’t arrive home until about 5 p.m.
“Our normal driver showed up (at the school) at 4 p.m. because she had to do her route and then come back and get us,” said Jakob, who often helps new drivers navigate the route. “…It’s definitely rough getting home late. You have to deal with homework and other activities, and it’s hard trying to manage your time when you don’t know the bus situation. It changes every day.”
Daniel Island resident Heather Friedrichs Lyman has two children, a first grader and a third grader, who both attend Daniel Island School. With two parents working full-time outside of the home, the Lyman family relies on a school bus to bring the kids home every day. Of the 132 school days so far this year, the bus has been more than two hours late some 34 times in getting the children home, she said. A handful of those times, continued Heather, they have not arrived home until 6:30p.m.
“They are too young to walk or ride bicycles, as we live two miles from the school and there are no crossing guards,” said Heather. “Bus transportation should be the safest, most reliable, environmentally-conscientious, and affordable option for Daniel Island’s public school children. Unfortunately, this has not been our experience.”
Heather blames the problem on several factors – driver turnover, delays in communication, bus breakdowns, and safety concerns. She said she has called the district “more times than I can count,” but only twice in the four years her children have been using bus transportation has she been able to reach someone there.
“Both times, I was told the district is and has been aware of the issues, and that ‘it has been this way for a long time.’ No plan to address the problems has ever been communicated to me.”
“Are we working on it?” responded Wes Fleming, director of transportation for the Berkeley County School District (BCSD). “Absolutely.”
Fleming said that the district has heard parents’ concerns and is doing its best to address them. According to Fleming, they are battling a series of issues ranging from a severe shortage of drivers to competition from other better-paying jobs to new Commercial Drivers License requirements for applicants.
“We started the school year 40 drivers short and as the school year has gone on, we are now closer to 50 short,” he added. “The toughest part is it’s a hard job and nobody seems to be interested in wanting to drive a school bus.”
The problems, Fleming continued, are not limited to Berkeley County. Districts all across the Charleston region and the state are experiencing the same difficulties in attracting and retaining quality drivers.
“At the same time, it’s becoming more and more difficult handling up to 78 students at a time on a bus,” he said. “Kids are just different these days. The world is evolving.”
The shortage of drivers is the district’s number one issue, added Fleming. Of the 194 buses in the BCSD fleet, only 141-145 are running every day because there aren’t enough people to drive them. A normal driver can handle anywhere from four to six routes a day, he said. Today, they have some doing as many as six to ten routes. The extra routes can cause delays for riders, Fleming explained.
“They double up,” he said. “And they will do two routes at once, or do a turnaround…They’ll take a load home and go back to the school and pick up a second one. That’s what causes students to be later getting home. There is not a school in the district that is immune to having a bus do a dual run or splitting routes. We’re short everywhere. Everybody in the district feels the pain.”
To serve students on Daniel Island and the Cainhoy Peninsula, the district likes to hire drivers who live in the area, because they are close and can provide more efficient service. But that can also create problems, Fleming said.
“We have a particular number of drivers in that area and, at this time, being short one or two drivers causes a big ripple effect,” he added. “…Having two new schools opening next year (off Clements Ferry Road) will be a challenge…But for the most part, all of the schools have been very patient. We’re working with Cainhoy Elementary Middle School and Daniel Island School to relieve some of the stress that I feel, that the parents feel, that the kids feel, and that the drivers feel.”
Often the drivers end up putting in a tremendous amount of extra time to make sure their precious cargo arrives to and from school safely, continued Fleming.
“Some drivers are working 60 hours a week to get the job done the way that its getting done. It may not seem like it to some parents…and I totally understand their frustration. If they’re feeling frustrated for one child or two children, imagine what we feel with 20,000 children.”
Another factor the district has to contend with is that it’s becoming more and more difficult to attract bus driver applicants due to non-competitive pay and the stress of the job. Interestingly, when the economy took a downturn about six or seven years ago, it wasn’t as tough to find people to fill the jobs, Fleming said, because there wasn’t much work to go around. Today, with a stronger economy, there is plenty of competition.
“Would you rather drive a school bus for $12 an hour or sweep the floor at Boeing?” added Fleming. “…You’ve got to be a special person to want to drive a school bus. And how do you recruit and retain, because to get them over that hump to stay…that’s the tough part. Keeping them is almost as difficult as getting them in the first place.”
Currently in South Carolina, all public school buses are owned and maintained by the State Department of Education. Districts receive funding from the state to pay for driver salaries, as well as bus operation and replacement. The Berkeley County School District received some $1.7 million in 2013 for its transportation services, according to data posted on the Department of Education website. State Senator Larry Grooms (R), a Daniel Island resident, is well aware of the bus driver shortage hampering BCSD and many other districts across the state.
“We have the most inefficient school bus fleet in the country for what it costs to operate the number of students that are transported,” said Grooms. “We also have the largest school bus transportation fleet in the country…In most every state, local districts own and operate their buses. We don’t.”
Some districts, such as Berkeley County, step up and supplement with their own buses and have added money on top of the state-provided driver salaries, stated Grooms. He believes one solution to the problem is to divest the centralized bus system to the districts.
"I believe Berkeley County would be much better off if they would receive a grant of what the state now spends to operate buses,” he said. “They could spend monies more efficiently and be able to provide a better service…There is an alternative out there that would be much preferred to what we have now, if we can get the State Department of Education to give up control.”
Berkeley County School Board Member Mac McQuillin, who represents Daniel Island and a large part of the Cainhoy Peninsula, noted that the district is well aware of the current transportation issues and is continuing to identify ways to combat the problem.
“However, under our current regime (state centralized bus system), until the General Assembly starts appropriating funds for annual infusions of new vehicles, we will continue to see unacceptable numbers of breakdowns and delays in transporting students. I believe Senator Grooms’ proposed alternative is a good one and would be much preferred to what we have now.”
In the meantime, Fleming is eyeing another potential avenue for alleviating concerns - a small proviso in the recent budget submitted by Governor Nikki Haley to the S.C. General Assembly would increase bus drivers’ pay. If it passes, the district would be able to sweeten the pot for potential new hires.
“That could be a big boost to all of us if that passes, and we really hope it does,” said Fleming. “That would at least open the door a little bit to be able to offer a little bit higher salary and get more from our applicant pool…We’re all excited about that.”
Fleming knows a pay increase won’t solve all of the district’s transportation woes, but if it happens, it will certainly be a step in the right direction.
“It’s a daily grind for us,” Fleming said. “How do we get this turned around?...This is the number one question on everybody’s mind.”