School bus service for Buffalo's elementary school kids has gotten a lot better since Superintendent Kriner Cash and the top two officials of First Student met two weeks ago.
Discussing the situation during a Buffalo School Board committee meeting Wednesday evening, one word used was "crisis" to describe what has been going on since classes started.
It is important to First Student, since its $39 million contract expires at the end of this school year and bids are coming in right now for the next five-year pact. The company has brought in drivers from out of state, sharply raised pay, and persuaded some former drivers to come back for the higher pay and hired more customer service agents to talk to parents.
Schools Chief Operating Officer James Weimer said there has been a marked improvement, but it has to be watched.
"It's something that we need to track and keep on top of at all times," Weimer said. "When it is like it is right now, you never hear a word. When there's issues, it becomes - obviously, as you guys have talked about at board meetings - you get calls. We get calls and it's just unfair to the kids."
The district Transportation Department cut the number of routes last year and so far this year to shrink the number of drivers needed. Assistant Transportation Director Cheryl Kennedy said the difference is measurable.
"Since Oct. 23, we have had 100% coverage every single morning, so we haven't had any uncovered," Kennedy said. "Bringing in those 14 out-of-state drivers has really made a difference there. In the afternoon, we have seen an 86% improvement since Oct. 23."
Before the bosses met, dozens of routes were not covered by drivers or a driver had to do two runs, bringing kids home late, sometimes very late.
Cash said he wants to be sure the improvement continues.
"Is it a short-term pop to get something or is it a long-term structural improvement?" he asked. "We want to see and make sure it's a long-term structural improvement. They're the biggest company, so if they can't do it, it's hard to even if we were willing to consider givng this up."