Roanoke City School Board threatens termination for embroiled bus provider

Durham School Services took over school bus operations over the summer

ROANOKE, Va. – The bone-chilling temperatures predicted for Wednesday morning are on the minds of Roanoke City School parents Tuesday night, as long waits at the bus stop and other transportation issues continue to be a problem.

For the first time, after nearly three months of issues with Durham School Services, the school board mentioned possibly firing the company. Durham apologized once again for the issues, but the board made it clear it was not satisfied with the apology and demanded an action plan be delivered by Wednesday afternoon. Board members said firing the company would not be good for anyone, but they are running out of patience.

This was a distinct change in tone from prior meetings and updates where the board appeared more lenient on the issue.

“You are putting us in a very difficult position if we don’t have an affirmative path to resolving this,” board member Laura Rottenborn said.

Durham was awarded the contract over the summer and bus drivers reported issues almost immediately after the transition from the prior vendor. The first week of school was described by some parents as “disastrous." But at Tuesday’s meeting, the school board, which at first was tolerant of Durham’s performance, sounded more like the parents that have been speaking at the podium during the school board’s meetings each month.

“I’m embarrassed to represent a board that hired you after the way you are performing,” board vice-chairman Lutheria Smith said.

The company went on a hiring blitz to fill the gaps, adding 15 drivers in October. However, the company said it has also lost eight drivers since Oct. 1, essentially not moving the needle as much as it needs to and leaving the vice president of the company to come to the school board with his tail between his legs for the second time.

“I want to apologize to all of you and I want to apologize to the community, that we have not solved this problem and given 100% service yet,” said John Ziegler, vice president of Durham School Services.

The company blames the problem partly on a national shortage of bus drivers due to low unemployment. Buses have been running late, missing stops and not showing up for field trips. Parents expressed concern again Tuesday night, citing that students are routinely missing 30 minutes to an hour of school daily. They also voiced fears of students being left out in the cold, as potentially record-breaking cold temperatures approach.

“I’m asking Durham, ‘What are your abilities?’ Because right now in the Jones family, and many other families across Roanoke, they’re getting an 'F',” parent Sarah Jones said during the meeting.

The board said the bottom line is that it can’t take chances with kids. The board also implied that time is running out. According to the board, the Durham contract carries financial penalties for missed field trips and a few other specific situations, but it goes from there to outright termination with nothing in between. They issued a thinly-veiled threat that firing the company is a possibility, but want to avoid that if possible.

“We are left with only kind of a nuclear option that isn’t good for anyone, because the best option is to fix it. Please fix it. Fix it now," Rottenborn said.

Roanoke County is also experiencing driver retention issues, and they specifically offered bonuses larger than the city to try to lure drivers away. But the board isn’t quite sure the money is the issue, also questioning company culture at Durham, employee satisfaction and how the company is run. If money is the case, however, they asked to see an updated cost as to what it would take to solve the issue.