“It’s just never been this bad.” Parents threaten lawsuit over Buffalo school bus driver shortage

Oct 18, 2019

A group of Buffalo parents and some school leaders are threatening legal action over what they describe as a transportation crisis in Buffalo Public Schools.

Representatives from the District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC), Buffalo Parent Teacher Organization (BPTO), We The Parents, the Community Action Organization of Western New York (CAO) and Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School held a press conference Thursday calling on the district and the company it contracts to provide bussing, First Student, to resolve persistent disruptions to student transportation.

From left to right: Samuel Radford, Dr. Wendy Mistretta, DPCC president, and Vonetta Rhodes, parent leader at BuffSci Charter School, spoke during a press conference and Facebook Live Thursday.
Credit Samuel Radford III/Facebook

The parent leaders allege that a number of problems have recurred since the beginning of the school year on Sept. 6, including students not getting picked up for school without any notification to parents or schools and students getting dropped off as much as an hour late—sometimes at the wrong school building.

“In all the years that we’ve been having transportation problems, it’s just never been this bad,” said Samuel Radford, the longtime former DPCC president and director of CAO Better Schools Better Neighborhoods.

“It has never been this overt, and it’s definitely never been to the point where people said, ‘Just prepare for that for the foreseeable future,’” as Radford said the DPCC was told by First Student.

Radford also said First Student told parents the company didn’t have enough drivers to run about three to five routes every day and that it was rotating those routes to make sure they didn’t affect the same schools every day.

A First Student spokesperson, Chris Kemper, told WBFO Thursday he couldn’t comment on the rotation of routes, but he confirmed that First Student is short the drivers it needs to cover about 1% of the 600 bus routes in operates in Buffalo every day. That’s about six bus routes.

Credit FirstStudentInc.com (http://www.firststudentinc.com/about/newsroom/first-student-image-library)

“We know that our service to this point in the school year is not what the community expects of us, nor is it what we expect from ourselves. We understand the frustration and we’re frustrated too,” Kemper said. “The really foundational issue, the root cause, is a severe shortage in school bus drivers, and that’s really not only true in the Buffalo area but nationwide.”

Kemper said First Student is actively recruiting for new drivers and recently raised the starting wage it offers to $16.40 per hour. Paid driver training takes between two to three weeks or less if the driver already has a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

Turnover for school bus drivers is high, Kemper said, because it’s generally part-time work and newly-trained drivers often get “poached” by higher-paying companies with attractive sign-on bonuses.

“This is a community issue and we need community support, so if there’s anyone out there that is contemplating driving a bus, they need a few extra dollars, they’re looking for a part-time job, certainly we would encourage them to take a look [at First Student].”

Kemper did not provide specific numbers of how many drivers First Student is missing or needs to fully staff routes to the Buffalo district and charter schools it services, but he said if the company could hire 25-30 new drivers “it would really go a long way to help us covering those routes.”

He also said First Student is currently getting between five to eight new drivers on the road each week.

Radford said he and other parent leaders organize consulted with a lawyer to discuss potential legal action to address the transportation problems that appear to be common knowledge, if not widespread, throughout the district.

WBFO reported Thursday that several Buffalo Board of Education members said at a school board meeting the majority of complaints they’ve heard since the beginning of the school year are transportation related.

At the same meeting Wednesday evening, Haben Berhe, a 17-year-old student at Hutch Tech High School, told the board she hadn’t been allowed to take the PSAT exam that day after arriving to school about 15 minutes late. She said she was late because her younger siblings’ bus never arrived and she was the only person available to drive them to school. Her father, who works an overnight job, had still been at work.

At Buffalo Academy of Science Charter School, one bus route didn’t pick up students four days in a row, according to school leaders who spoke out Thursday. WBFO also heard from a teacher at PS #92 BUILD Community School Friday that a bus dropped students off 50 minutes late and has been late every day this week.

Kemper acknowledged there can be delays for the 1% of routes he said are affected.

“We’re doubling up on the route after we finish one route, we’re going back and running that route, we’re picking up however we can, but of course that can lead to delays,” he said. “It may only be 1%, but at the same time, to that one parent who’s counting on us, we understand that that’s one route too many.”

The parent leaders are currently collecting affidavits from affected families and said they will decide how to move forward depending on the response of First Student and Buffalo Public Schools. The affidavit reads:

“That I knowingly and voluntarily offer this affidavit in support of a complaint, petition or assertion that my child is exposed to unreasonable risk, danger or harm while being transported to or from school by the Buffalo Public Schools District, its agents, employees or contractors. Contrary to the best educational interests and physical well-being of my child, the current pupil transportation operation of the Buffalo Public Schools District constitutes a public hazard for my child.”