Over a two-day period in September, a parent of a Horizon West Middle School student received four messages regarding problems with the student’s school bus.
The first message informed the parent the student’s morning bus was running 60 to 90 minutes late. It was sent at 4:41 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5, after the school day had been completed.
The next morning, the parent received a text at 8:51 a.m. relaying the bus was running about 20 to 30 minutes late.
The morning after that, the parent received a text at 8:44 a.m. stating the bus was running about 40 to 50 minutes late in the morning. That afternoon, a fourth text stated the bus was running 30 to 40 minutes late.
And that’s just one parent of one student at one school.
For the last two school years, Orange County Public Schools has been about 100 bus drivers short of what it needs to transport about 56,000 students throughout the county.
District 4 Orange County School Board Member Pam Gould calls the shortage one of the greatest challenges the district is facing.
“We really saw CDL driver’s licenses become in high demand when goods needed to move across the country during COVID,” she said. “There was a huge increase in online shopping and delivery systems, and then there was a backlog of goods that didn’t make it to the storage and they had to get distributed, and that hasn’t changed. There was a national shortage in CDL licensed drivers even prior to COVID.”
Gould said the shortage can be blamed on one thing: money.
“When you have school districts who, especially in Florida, receive far less funding than other states provide their school districts, it’s hard for us to be competitive in an ever-increasing and demanding CDL market,” she said.
Danelle Ward, who has a freshman student at West Orange High School, said the buses have had the same issues since they resumed after the pandemic.
“For the last three years, we mostly drive her because the buses are late all the time and kids are sitting three to four per seat (not safe at all),” she said. “This year, the bus is dropping them off outside the gate to our neighborhood, and the kids are standing there waiting for a car to go in or come out to open the gate so they can walk home. It’s not safe, and the driver should not do that. I don’t want the driver to get fired, but they need to go through the main gate and drop these kids off where they are supposed to. They pick them up at that spot inside the gate, but apparently don’t want to take the five extra minutes to drive around to the main gate after school for drop off.”
Niki DeRogatis, who has a freshman student at Windermere High School, also has concerns with safety.
“We haven’t really had much issue with the timing of the buses as they are never the same bus, and when different buses pick her up or take her home the time varies,” she said. “My biggest concern is that her bus is overcrowded with students. They are sitting three in a seat and on the floor consistently.”
According to OCPS officials, the standard capacity for a secondary run, two students to a seat, is 52 students. An elementary run has a maximum capacity of 78, or three students per seat.
“Runs are designed taking those capacities into account,” OCPS Administrator for Media Relations Michael Ollendorff said. “Also, standard procedures are that a driver will not depart unless all students are sitting in a seat.”
Sandy Lynne, who has a student attending Horizon High School, said her daughter is in dual enrollment and OCPS is supposed to provide transportation.
“They have finally gotten that sorted out, but if her bus is late in the morning, she will miss her bus from Horizon to Orange Technical College,” she said. “If she drives to school, she still has to either take a bus from there (keep in mind it’s the opposite direction of our house), or she can drive from there. We share a car, however, and they will not allow her to occasionally drive to OTC. It’s all or nothing. They have yet to explain why if a bus from here is late and she chooses to drive why she can’t drive directly to OTC. Or on days she can’t drive because of my work schedule she can take a bus, while on days she can drive she could drive from here to there.”
Lynne said her daughter is the only student at the school who attends OTC, so she rides on a bus by herself there and back.
Other parents believe poor communication is making the problem worse.
Kristin Patricia, who has twins at SunRidge Middle School, said not only are the buses never on time but also delays are not communicated with a proper warning.
“I go on their dashboard that is supposed to be up to date with any bus delays, but SunRidge Middle School is never on the list, yet it is late every day for dismissal,” she said. “When it says it’s on campus, we will get a text an hour or more later saying it’s leaving. My neighbor picked up the kids yesterday. We got a text saying their bus was on campus. She said there was no bus there. It’s maddening!”
Laura Laytham, who also has a student at Hamlin Middle, said the first month of school the bus was constantly late, arriving after 9:30 a.m. when school starts at 9:30 a.m.
“Two weeks ago, my daughter said she heard at school that the bus driver quit in the middle of the day, so their route had to get picked up by another bus after that driver did their first route,” Laytham said. “So they weren’t picked up until almost 5 p.m. and got home close to 6 p.m. What is frustrating is that if the driver did quit, the management of the bus system knew that ahead and could have communicated that to the school, who then could communicate to parents so that we know which bus will be excessively late. Then we can decide if we want to have the kids wait or go pick them up. The lack of communication is the biggest failure above all.”
Laytham said she emailed the principal at the school and asked her to advocate for the school since parents are not allowed to have their students ride bikes or walk. The principal never replied.
A NUMBERS GAME
OCPS bus drivers currently are paid between $16.65 and $19.98 per hour. Benefits for bus drivers hired by OCPS include retirement packages through the Florida Retirement System, paid employee health insurance valued at $9,289, uniform program for bus operators and mechanics, no weekends or late night shifts, as well as paid holidays and 10 sick days.
“It’s a crisis because there are so many jobs out there,” Gould said. “If you want to drive, you can be making over $100,000 a year long-hauling or working for one of the bigger companies (such as) Amazon or Walmart. These drivers have a lot of choices, and of course, they’re going to do what’s best for their families.”
Gould said district officials are doing everything they possibly can to explore options.
“We have very dedicated bus drivers who want to support our students, but they can’t break driving laws, they’re often having two to three routes, and it is causing a big pinch in how we deliver kids to and from schools, among other things (such as) games and field trips, and all those things that are so essential to their whole learning,” she said. “We just can’t be competitive, and as long as we’re not competitive in the market, we’re going to struggle.”