An ongoing shortage of school bus drivers on Maui has turned into a heated exchange of words in recent days between Department of Education officials and the bus vendor that lost some of the island’s bus routes to a competitor last year.

Roberts Hawaii, which operates school and tourism buses, took out a half-page ad in The Maui News last Thursday, accusing the DOE of having “refused to take corrective action” and urging parents to contact their elected officials to express frustration with the situation.

“The DOE has the ability to immediately fix the school bus driver shortage on Maui by declaring that its contractor is in default for failing to meet its contractual obligations,” reads the ad, featuring the image of a keiki and listing names and contact information for lawmakers.

“But the DOE has not done this despite knowing of the problem for months. Nor does it plan to.”

Copy of the full-page ad taken out by Roberts Hawaii in the Aug. 17 edition of The Maui News.

An education department official fired back in a strongly worded reply in a column in the online Maui Watch on Monday.

“This self-serving ad is deliberately misleading and obscures the company’s significant role in creating the problem,” wrote Dann Carlson, assistant superintendent of school facilities and support services for DOE.

The dispute stems from the failure of a competing bus company, Ground Transport Inc., to find enough licensed drivers to fill its Maui routes. Last year, Ground Transport was awarded three bus contracts for routes that once belonged to Roberts.

The driver shortage, now in its fourth week, has forced DOE to consolidate or suspend routes, as well as adjust pick-up and drop-off times.

As a result, students are waiting longer for buses, some parents have had to switch their schedules to drive their kids to school, and school activities have been adjusted, according to school administrators. The holding pattern has also caused one legislator to demand solutions.

On Maui, Lahainaluna High, Baldwin High and Iao Intermediate have been affected. The current driver shortage on Maui affects about 383 students, according to Carlson.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Ground Transport was was still short 11 drivers on Maui, the DOE reported.

Earlier this month, that number was as high as 17, but Ground Transport has been flying in relief bus drivers from Oahu. On Kauai, two separate bus contractors are still short eight drivers, the DOE added.

Roberts still retains the largest school bus contract on Maui. Ground Transport won the three others after it put in winning bids when a single Maui contract was split into four.

When it became evident Ground Transport would be unable to find enough drivers, the education department approached Roberts and proposed a two-year contract for the Laihanaluna High route that offered an additional $700,000 a year, according to Carlson.

Roberts countered with a seven-year contract offer at that same rate — plus signing bonuses for their drivers —  a rate that was “nearly five million dollars more than the current contract,” Carlson wrote.

“HIDOE has a fiscal responsibility to spend taxpayer dollars prudently and meeting Roberts’ demands for that amount would have impacted HIDOE’s budget over many years and required legislative approval,”  Carlson added. “Roberts’ significant role in hindering the transition to the new contractor has directly contributed to and prolonged this situation.”

A representative for Roberts Hawaii didn’t return a request for comment Tuesday.

Roberts Hawaii, operates about 1/3 of the bus routes in Hawaii. It unsuccessfully sued over the loss of some of its Maui routes to Ground Transport.

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Louis Gomes, president of Ground Transport Inc., also couldn’t be reached for comment.

Roberts Hawaii, which has operated school bus routes for years, challenged the awarding of the three Maui contracts to Ground Transport. But the company lost its legal challenges earlier this year.

While Ground Transport has been operating school buses on Oahu for two decades, these are the company’s first routes on Maui. Its seven-year DOE contract for the three routes will pay the company $38.5 million, according to a Civil Beat review of the contracts.

In his Maui Watch piece, Carlson defended the DOE’s decision to award the Maui contracts to Ground Transport, saying the company’s bids were lower than Roberts’. The company also bought 70 new school buses, establishing base yards and setting up operations on the island.

Carlson said Roberts’ “previous services on Maui … were among the most expensive services in the state” and that it was “necessary to introduce a competitive process to reduce the amount of funding that was being diverted from classrooms to non-instructional services.”

Roberts Hawaii and Ground Transport were among the bus contractors that figured in an investigative series by Civil Beat called “Taken For A Ride” that explored runaway costs in state school bus contracts. The series found that a sudden drop in competition among school bus company bidders — leaving an industry dominated by Roberts Hawaii — caused school bus costs in the state to swell.

The findings led to a state audit that found inefficient department management and caused the Legislature in 2012 to cut $17 million from the state transportation budget to pressure the DOE to curb school transportation costs. The department covered that shortfall by diverting funds from other sources.

In 2013, the DOE started a new pilot program called “Get On Board” to minimize school bus costs. That plan introduced a new school bus contracting system and new bus routing software to operate the system more efficiently.

The current driver shortage on Maui  doesn’t represent a return to poor department management of transportation services, said state Rep. Roy Takumi, former chair of the House education committee.

“They’ve come a long way obviously,” he said, referring to changes made by the education department. “The fact they (Ground Transport) are unable to hire drivers is not a reflection of the overall system per se.”

He added that it’s hard for any business to predict the job market. “Obviously, they found out the hard way. Whatever they were offering wasn’t attractive enough for people to do the job.”

In a statement to Civil Beat, Carlson said the agency is considering changes to future contracts.

“The possibility of the losing vendor holding on to its (commercial driver’s license-) qualified employees, as opposed to allowing them to continue serving the routes with the winning bidder, will be addressed in future contract negotiations,” he said.

It’s unclear whether this meant Roberts has prevented its drivers from going to work for Ground Transport.

Additionally, Carlson said DOE plans to require Ground Transport to provide specific dates and requirements for restoring service. Provided those conditions are met, the affected routes will be restored by the week of Labor Day, he said.

No details were provided about what happens if the bus company can’t meet that timeline.

Takumi believes the responsibility to fix the situation lies with the DOE. “I think they’re closer to figuring out what can be done than they were a week ago,” he said.

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