PALMER — A new contractor and driver shortages triggered school bus chaos this week in Mat-Su, leading to hundreds of complaints from families and outrage from school officials.
On top of missed stops and severely delayed routes, at least five children were unaccounted for at least briefly Tuesday before arriving safely home, some several hours late.
One of them, Jacob Wentworth, began his first day as a second grader at Goose Bay Elementary near Wasilla, thrilled to be starting school and looking forward to the year ahead.
The 7-year-old ended the day with a terrifying, nearly three-hour period during which his family couldn’t find him and then hysterical tears when he finally got home, said his grandmother Karen Nichols.
The boy ended up on the wrong bus, Nichols said, and then no one could find him or reach the driver.
“He was OK today, excited about going to school today,” Nichols said Wednesday, the next day. “But he absolutely does not want to ride the bus.”
Durham School Services last year received a 10-year contract worth at least $188 million and as much as $220 million to take over from longtime bus provider First Student. Durham, which also serves the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, is a subsidiary of National Express LLC, which operates more than 22,500 school buses across more than 550 school districts in 34 states and three Canadian provinces.
Responding to the chorus of complaints about bus service, the Mat-Su school district announced several new policies on Thursday afternoon “to improve systems and regain your trust,” as schools superintendent Randi Trani wrote in a message to families.
Until further notice, a teacher or other school employee will accompany elementary students on all afternoon routes in the core area and stay in direct contact with the front office in case the student experiences a delay or missed bus stop, Trani said. Durham is flying in additional drivers and dispatch personnel along with senior leadership staying on-site to oversee operations, the district said. School officials also added more people answering phones at the Pupil Transportation Call Center.
At a regularly scheduled Mat-Su school board meeting Wednesday night, the superintendent apologized for what he called “unacceptable” transportation issues but also cited years of flat state funding as a factor in the rolling bus cancellations occurring across many districts including Mat-Su.
Some parents came to the meeting to lash out, describing long waits in the rain, problems reaching dispatchers who then couldn’t reach bus drivers, and frantic efforts to locate students after hours.
Wasilla resident Melissa Sapp said she had no idea where her autistic son was after he was mistakenly put on a general education bus at 3:45 p.m. and wasn’t dropped off until just after 6 p.m.
“No one could get ahold of a bus driver. No one could get ahold of transportation dispatch — myself, the secretary of the school who sat there with me to try to keep me calm as my child was ... lost, for lack of a better word, for two hours,” Sapp said.
The situation would be bad enough for a general education child, she continued, but was especially “heart wrenching” because her son’s issues make it hard for him to cope with stressful situations.
“I hope that no other parent ever has to go through this again,” she said. “I see this as completely unacceptable and a ball was dropped. Especially this being a new company.”
Members of the school board, who approved the contract in February 2021, on Wednesday night condemned Durham’s missteps but also questioned school employee training procedures when bus issues arise and recommended parents make sure they discuss safety protocols with their children.
Member Ole Larson suggested Durham be fined if they don’t meet the terms of their contract.
“I’ve been on the board a long time and I’ve never seen this bad of a situation,” Larson said.
School board president Ryan Ponder referenced a clause in the Durham contract that allows the board to terminate the contract for cause, saying the company had ample time to put plans in place before Tuesday’s “epic failure.”
“There’s a lot of things that need to be ironed out on the first day, but we should never be ironing out where our children are at and the inability to communicate in the 21st century,” Ponder said.
Trani, in a statement to families and staff Wednesday night, said Tuesday’s problems were unprecedented and promised to resolve driver shortages and communication failures as well as notify parents about any buses more than 15 minutes late.
Durham’s Northwest region manager said the problems that arose Tuesday came about due to a “perfect storm” of issues that included driver shortages, eight new buses that broke down, and problems with radio communications.
“This is completely unacceptable performance for the first day of school,” William Zimmerman told the board. “I recognize that, Durham recognizes that and I want to take time to apologize to the community, to the school district and most importantly to the families. I have small children myself and I couldn’t imagine being in that position.”
As of Wednesday, Durham was 40 drivers short, Zimmerman said. As a temporary stopgap, the company imported 27 employees from the Lower 48 who weren’t familiar with routes. Ten new drivers start Monday, with more in the pipeline after that, he said.
The company is working to put GPS systems on all its buses to track them, he said, and to bring in more people to staff the dispatch call center.
Jacob Wentworth, the second-grader who got home nearly three hours late on Tuesday, was traumatized by the experience, family members say.
Karina Wentworth, his mother, actually ended up calling 911 after he didn’t arrive when school officials said he would. She found another bus driver who tried a half dozen times to find the boy, but no driver responded to say they had him.
His older brothers walked and biked their neighborhood searching for Jacob, their grandmother said. One broke down sobbing in his mother’s arms over his fear his brother was gone.
Meanwhile, Jacob knew the driver was taking them away from their neighborhood off Knik-Goose Bay Road and toward Big Lake, but the driver kept going, she said.
Her son was found at 6:30 p.m., Karina Wentworth said. He has sensory issues and came off the bus hungry, needing to use the bathroom, and haunted by the experience.
“This was a big issue,” Wentworth told the school board. “I hope you don’t take it lightly.”
Anyone with questions about a late bus can call Durham dispatch at 907-885-3561. If no dispatcher answers, the district’s Pupil Transportation line is 907-761-4357.