PALMER — The new school bus contractor in Mat-Su is dealing with the same driver shortage as Anchorage and other districts around the state.
But along with a rough start as school got underway last week, Durham School Services is also dealing with another shortage: They don’t have enough school buses.
Durham last week began serving as transportation contractor for a school district the size of West Virginia — “geographically, the biggest district I’ve ever seen,” as one company executive called it — under a 10-year contract approved by the Mat-Su school board in February 2021.
The company’s tenure began with a chaotic first few days that shocked families and school district officials with late or totally missed routes, traffic jams at schools without busing, and a number of young students whose parents had no idea where they were for several hours.
The CEO of Durham’s parent company, National Express LLC, on Friday offered families an apology and said the company is “determined to restore your trust” in a letter forwarded by Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District officials.
But the challenges continue. With school starting in Washington, Durham is now expecting to lose the out-of-state drivers they imported to Alaska to fill empty positions in Mat-Su, according to the update.
The company is struggling to fill those positions given statewide and national shortages, it said. “About 55% of Alaskan students and families are experiencing inadequate busing due to the driver shortage.”
That, as well as ongoing attendance issues due to COVID-19 and other illness, could lead to more bus cancellations in addition to ongoing rolling cancellations already underway, officials say.
They warned of unscheduled cancellations next Monday through Wednesday.
‘What we want to see’
As the first day of school wound down Aug. 16, deputy superintendent Luke Fulp was tracking reports of eight to 10 children who were thought to be on a school bus but could not be accounted for. That’s more than officials identified last week.
Calls from parents quickly overwhelmed bus dispatch and school phone lines, leading to frustrated and frightened families scrambling to track down children, including at least two with special needs. Some drivers couldn’t be reached by radio, making it impossible to quickly locate students.
District and company officials this week said they were receiving far fewer complaints as pickup and drop-off times stabilized.
Buses were “96 and a half percent” on time Wednesday morning, said Mat-Su district superintendent Randy Trani. “That’s what we want to see.”
By Friday, the district was reporting on-time buses at 97.7%, compared to below 85% last week, according to the transportation update sent to families.
But problems finding drivers — and buses — continue.
Durham is operating from a new bus barn accessed by a gravel road just off the Parks Highway near Wasilla.
The company needs 160 buses, according to northwest regional manager Will Zimmerman. Right now, they have just over 100, though they have used buses from the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, where they also have a transportation contract, on a temporary basis.
“It’s a supply chain issue,” Zimmerman said. “The production is not nearly what the output was before COVID. So although we will see the volume here, eventually it’s just slow supply chain and added to the fact that you have to get that here from the Lower 48.”
Durham officials say they learned a week or two before school they wouldn’t have enough buses arriving from Oklahoma, by way of Tacoma, to the Port of Alaska in Anchorage. Then issues arose with about of the third of the buses that did get here: Some needed repair and others didn’t pass state inspection.
The company is similarly short on drivers with a roster of just over 100 full-time qualified drivers as of Wednesday, far short of the 165 drivers Durham needs, Zimmerman said.
Durham has 30 drivers in training, he said.
The company has started offering a sign-on bonus of $2,500 for credentialed school bus drivers and $1,500 to non-credentialed driver candidates, plus a $200 bonus for trainees once they obtain their commercial driver’s license permit, according to the letter from National Express CEO Gary Waits.
District officials say they are also evaluating route consolidation to free up drivers and requesting support from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to temporarily change regulatory standards to allow more drivers to be trained at one time.
Both shortages were part of a combination of problems that culminated in the school year’s disastrous start, Durham officials said.
“We typically don’t experience this kind of service and it’s embarrassing,” Jim Ring, Durham’s Texas-based senior vice president of operations for the western region, said during an interview this week. “And it’s unfortunate because the kids are the ones that suffer ... and the parents.”
Ring is in Alaska to help bring the company up to speed in Mat-Su.
Durham has made sure all bus radios are on the right channel, and improved driver check-in procedures, officials say. Families that can’t reach bus dispatchers during peak hours can call the district’s Pupil Transportation Department at 907-761-4357.
The goal: Full, on-time buses
After that first day, the district began putting school staff on every elementary bus. That will continue through the first week in September, according to the district’s update Friday.
Having a staffer on buses seems to reassure families, Trani said. “And the rest has just been getting better.”
The district is not paying Durham for any missed routes, Fulp said. Under its contract with the borough, the company also could face fines for not providing full staffing starting the first day of the contract. The district had assessed no penalties in the first two weeks of the contract, Fulp said in an email, adding that the district assesses liquidated damages at the end of each monthly billing period.
The drivers are in the middle of union negotiations, Zimmerman said. Durham has agreed to allow them to operate under the terms of a prior agreement negotiated with the district’s previous main bus contractor, First Student, he said. Right now, starting drivers make $25 an hour, but that’s expected to go up once a new union agreement is reached.
A Teamsters Local 959 representative said the union had no comment when reached by phone Thursday.
More broadly, the cure for the district’s transportation problems, superintendent Trani said, is “100% of the buses full and 100% of the buses on time.”
“And then this will drift into everybody’s memories — that horrible event that happened,” he said. “I really think those will be the keys to get past what happened.”