Roanoke school parents demand answers, bus provider admits mistakes in school bus saga

Durham School Services expects problem to be fixed by next month

ROANOKE, Va – On Tuesday night, Durham School Services, the private company running Roanoke City School buses, said there is a light at the end of the tunnel for its turbulent start to student busing.

Since day one, buses have run late or missed stops all together and parents are still not happy.

The school board got an earful from both sides at its meeting Tuesday, and board members also questioned why issues have not been resolved yet. The board spent a good chunk of its meeting discussing the topic.

Durham said they will continue to increase drive bonuses, and are about to launch a new app for parents to track their kids school bus next week. But many parents still want the board to take a long hard look at exactly what happened.

Durham School Services vice-president John Ziegler was grilled by a number of the board members at the meeting and said the company has come up short.

"As Durham, and myself, we ended up in this situation because I didn't get the job done," Ziegler said. "I'm honest enough to say that."

The board had asked Durham to be at every one of their meetings until the bus saga is over, and Ziegler said that would be soon.

"If we can keep the momentum that I see coming this week, 10 (drivers) by the end of October will put us close, and I would say (we'll be where we need to be) by the second week of November," Ziegler said.

Durham said it has 10 drivers in the immediate pipeline right now, expecting to bring them online within the next three weeks. It also said it has five more in classroom training, and 14 more applicants working on the first steps of the process, for a total of 29 drivers in the pipeline. The company continues its marketing blitz to get people applying for the open jobs.

But for five parents who spoke before the board Tuesday, it's too little, too late, saying that this has been their living nightmare.

"Are the standards you set for us not standards you are willing to apply to yourself and to the companies you hire for us?" parent Heather Lawson said. "The lack of communication, transparency and accountability so far has been beyond any form of acceptable."

Durham has been short drivers since the first day of school, and it said complicated with other issues it's caused the late pickups and drop offs, or in some cases, missed stops all together. Both the company and parents agree the issue has gotten better in the time since, but things are still not 100%.

"I will say that this is a disaster that has been a ticking time bomb since 2009, we really should have seen this coming," parent Catherine Koebel said.

The National Association for Pupil Transportation studied the issue in 2016, finding that many divisions across the country struggle with driver retention and hiring. They cite economic factors, such as low unemployment and other more attractive jobs as reasons.

School bus staff have spoken with 10 News in the past, but only under the condition of anonymity, fearing for their jobs. That changed Tuesday night as staff members showed up in numbers, applauding in the back of the room and even speaking before the board.

"It seems like it's the drivers fault, it's not our fault, whoever created it, it's their fault," bus staff member Antoinette Lee said.

The school board told Durham it needs to do better, and they can't keep having these meetings. Durham said the new parent app will help, and that more administrative staff are in town to do just that.

"We will continue, the team I have from our company, to do everything we can to staff every single bus route, and we won't stop until it's done," Ziegler said.

The board asked Ziegler if Roanoke was the only location in which it was having these issues. Ziegler said that it provides bus services to more than 200 school divisions across the country, and while there were unique circumstances in Roanoke, the problem is not unique to Roanoke.

"I would consider it almost a crisis level throughout the United States," Ziegler said.

About the Author: